The main character in one of our favorite childhood picture books may be the unlikely hero we need right now. An intriguing new study shows that caterpillars could help solve the world’s plastic pollution problem. (Well, technically moths — but we prefer the mental image of the Very Hungry Caterpillar saving the environment.) Federica Bertocchini from Spain’s Institute of Biomedicine & Biotechnology of Cantabria doubles as a beekeeper — and when she discovered wax moths in her bee hives, prompted Bertocchini tossed them in a plastic bag.
It didn’t take long for the creatures to eat their way out of the plastic bag, so Bertocchini teamed up with biochemists Paolo Bombelli and Christopher Howe to determine if and how moths digest plastic.
The researchers found that when a film of polyethylene (PE) was left with wax worms, holes began to appear after just 40 minutes. As shown in the graphic below, 100 of the creatures made a significant number of holes after just 12 hours in a high-street grocery bag.
So, what’s the worms’ secret? Apparently they produce special enzymes that help break down the plastic.
According to the study, worms are built to consume compounds similar to those found in plastic bags.
But don’t worry — we don’t need to keep our homes stocked with worms.
Not everyone in the science community is on board with the idea. Marine biologist Tracy Mincer told National Geographic that a better solution is to reduce plastic production and increase recycling.
Either way, reducing plastic pollution is essential. It’s one of the main causes of climate change, and it humans and wildlife — including those hungry caterpillars.