Plastic pollution is a monumental issue and one that isn’t going away anytime soon, but researchers are opening up new possibilities around how we could chip away at the problem.
Scientists working in this area at Canada’s Brandon University have made an exciting discovery, zeroing in on the mechanisms that enable a common species of caterpillar to survive on a diet of plastic alone. In recent years, scientists have identified a number of organisms with an ability to eat away at common plastics. These include engineered enzymes, mealworms with an appetite for Styrofoam and a type of bacterium with an ability to break down PET plastics in a relatively short space of time.
Researchers have been investigating the mechanisms underlying this unique behavior. Their work reveals that the plastic-devouring abilities of the waxworm can be tied to a species of gut bacteria, which they managed to isolate and prove actually thrive on a diet of plastics.
In the team’s experiments, the waxworms were able to survive purely on a diet of polyethylene, the type of plastic used in shopping bags, disposable drinking caps, soda bottles and other everyday items. The creatures have such a ravenous appetite for it, that 60 of them were able to devour more than 30 sq cm (4.7 sq in) of a plastic bag in less than a week.
We obviously can’t solve the world’s plastic waste problem just by throwing waxworms at it, but the new discovery could help us “design better tools to eliminate plastic and microplastics from our environment.”