Credit: The Atlantic

The plastic-eating caterpillar

Scientist Federica Bertocchini of the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain first noticed the wax worms’ plastic-eating skills when she was cleaning up a wax worm infestation in one of the beehives she keeps at home. She put the worms in a plastic bag, tied it closed, and put the bag in a room of her house while she finished cleaning the hive. When she returned to the room, “they were everywhere,” Bertocchini said in a statement. They’d escaped by chewing their way out of the bag, and fast.

“This project began there and then,” she said. In a paper published in Current Biology on Monday (April 24), Bertocchini and her colleagues described 100 wax worms chewing through a polyethylene shopping bag—the kind that people discard at a rate of 1 trillion per year globally—in around 40 minutes. After 12 hours, the bag was significantly shredded.

While the discovery is far from an actionable solution to plastic waste (worms would not be able to survive in the zero-oxygen environment of a landfill, for example) Bertocchini told Ed Yong at the Atlantic she hopes to find the enzyme the worms use to break down the plastic: “Maybe we can find the molecule and produce it at high-scale rather than using a million worms in a plastic bag.”

Ed Yong in The Atlantic.