This Hungry Caterpillar Can Help Us With Our Plastic Problem

The little bug that loves plastic


An Emperor moth caterpillar (Saturnia pavonia) feeding on a bramble leaf.

An Emperor moth caterpillar (Saturnia pavonia) feeding on a bramble leaf. (Sandra Standbridge /

We live in a world that heavily relies on plastic to function and it's almost impossible to avoid using products made of plastic. And plastic really is a wonderful material. It makes our lives easier, lighter, and definitely cheaper. But our pursuit of comfort also has a massive downside. Almost 300 million tons of plastic a year are being produced globally and only a small amount of that is being recycled after it gets thrown out.

One surprising solution to our plastic problem could actually come from nature itself. "We have found that the larva of a common insect, Galleria mellonella, is able to biodegrade one of the toughest, most resilient, and most used plastics: polyethylene," developmental biologist Federica Bertocchini, a Ramón y Cajal researcher at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology at the Universidad de Cantabria in Spain told Forbes.

Thanks to an accidental discovery by Bertocchini, we now know that wax worms do a phenomenal job at eating plastic, even polyethylene, which is one of the most resistant to degradation. As researchers work hard to learn more about the precise biochemistry underlying this degradation process by the waxworms' gut flora, we may soon be able to adapt this process into a practical biotechnological solution for managing polyethylene waste and bring us all towards a greener future.

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