Researchers at Cambridge University have discovered that moth lavae, which eats wax in bee hives, can also degrade plastic.
Experiments were able to show that the insect can break down chemical bonds within plastic in a similar way to digesting beeswax.
This could be due to the fact that the chemical processes are similar, and researchers are now interested in the prospect of developing a biotechnological approach to dealing with plastic waste in oceans, rivers, and landfill sites.
In the experiments researchers exposed 100 caterpillars to a supermarket shopping bag and within 40 minutes holes began to appear in it and by 12 hours the larvae had reduced the plastic by 92 milligrams.
In another experiment researchers ground the caterpillars into a paste and smeared it onto the plastic where it again began to dissolve, likely due to the chemicals found within the gut of the caterpillar.
Dr Paolo Bombelli, a biochemist at the university and a researcher in the study said:
“If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process, its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable.
“This discovery could be an important tool for helping to get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste accumulated in landfill sites and oceans.”
Dr Bombelli and Federica Bertocchini of the Spanish National Research Council have since patented the discovery.
Bertocchini hopes that a single enzyme is breaking down the plastic and that, “if this is the case, I can picture a scenario in the future where we can isolate it, produce it on a large scale and use that to biodegrade plastics.”
In the wild the moth featured in experiments, Galleria Mellonella, are known to lay eggs within bee hives, where they hatch and thrive on wax within nests.
In 2016 it was reported that annual plastic waste arisings in the UK were estimated to be 3.7 million tonnes in 2014.