Plastic-eating waxworms found to be able to metabolise plastics due to microorganisms in their gut, new research unveils

Waxworms, a species of caterpillar, are able to eat through common types of plastic due to microorganisms in their gut which help them consume and metabolise plastics, new research has found.

Researchers at Brandon University in Manitoba, Canada, found that waxworms are able to “ingest and metabolise polyethylene at unprecedented rates” thanks to the microorganisms in their intestines.

The new study, which was published earlier this month in the open peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, also found a greater amount of “microbial abundance” in the caterpillars’ guts when they were ingesting plastic than when they ate a traditional diet of honeycomb.

Dr Christophe LeMoine and Dr Bryan Cassone of Brandon University’s Department of Biology, isolated a species of intestinal bacteria in the worms that was able to survive on plastic for more than a year as its only source of nutrients. In waxworms, polyethylene metabolises into a glycol, which is biodegradable.

If follows earlier research from 2017 which found the waxworm to seemingly able to eat through common types of plastic – including polyethylene, a nonbiodegradable type of plastic that is the most commonly used worldwide.

Glycol, a form of alcohol, was created as a byproduct of the plastic degradation. The researchers are still working to identify the exact nature of the end products.

It is intended that if researchers can harness what in the gut bacteria helps caterpillars so easily break down plastic, it can be used to design better ways to eliminate plastic from the environment.

Dr Bryan Cassone said: “If we can better understand how the bacteria works together with the worm and what kind of conditions cause it to flourish, perhaps this information can be used to design better tools to eliminate plastics and microplastics from our environment.

“We envision harnessing the waxworm and its microbiome to develop approaches that do not require whole organisms – rather the products or by-products produced from their interactions that make their ability to breakdown plastic so efficient.”

Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She writes about lifestyle including sustainable and green living. She also offers content services to businesses and individuals at Rosamedea.com

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