Moth-eatenPlastic-eating caterpillars could save the planet

  • Such is the case with a paper just published in  Current Biology , which reveals to the world a moth capable of chewing up plastic.
  • The experiment behind the paper was inspired when Federica Bertocchini, an amateur beekeeper who is also a biologist at Cantabria University, in Spain, noticed caterpillars chewing holes through the wax in some of her hives and lapping up the honey.
  • Dr Bombelli and Dr Howe pointed out that, like beeswax, many plastics are held together by methylene bridges (structures that consist of one carbon and two hydrogen atoms, with the carbon also linked to two other atoms).
  • On closer examination, Dr Bertocchini and her colleagues discovered that their caterpillars each ate an average of 2.2 holes, three millimetres across, every hour, in the plastic film.
  • Whether releasing wax moths on the world’s surplus plastic really is sensible is not yet clear.

MOST scientific research follows a logical progression, with one experiment following up on the findings of another. Every now and then, however, serendipity plays a part. Such is the case with a paper just published in Current Biology, which reveals to the world a moth capable of chewing up plastic.

MOST scientific research follows a logical progression, with one experiment following up on the findings of another. Every now and then, however, serendipity plays a part. Such is the case with a paper just published in  Current Biology , which reveals to the world a moth capable of chewing up plastic.

The experiment behind the paper was inspired when Federica Bertocchini, an amateur beekeeper who is also a biologist at Cantabria University, in Spain, noticed caterpillars chewing holes through the wax in some of her hives and lapping up the honey. To identify them, she took some home in a plastic shopping bag. But when, a few hours later, she got around to looking at her captives she found the bag was full of holes and the caterpillars were roaming around her house.

After rounding them up, she identified them as larvae of the greater wax moth, a well-known pest of bee hives. On considering their escape from their shopping-bag prison, though, she wondered whether they might somehow be put to work as garbage-disposal agents.

Past attempts to use living organisms to get rid of plastics have not gone well. Even the most promising species, a bacterium called  Nocardia asteroides , takes more than six months to obliterate a film of plastic a mere half millimetre thick. Judging by the job they had done on her bag, Dr Bertocchini suspected wax-moth caterpillars would perform much…

Moth-eatenPlastic-eating caterpillars could save the planet