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Earth Science

A Caterpillar May Lead To a 'Plastic Pollution' Solution (bbc.com) 71

New submitter FatdogHaiku quotes a report from BBC: Researchers at Cambridge University have discovered that the larvae of the moth, which eats wax in bee hives, can also degrade plastic. Experiments show the insect can break down the chemical bonds of plastic in a similar way to digesting beeswax. The plastic is used to make shopping bags and food packaging, among other things, but it can take hundreds of years to decompose completely. However, caterpillars of the moth (Galleria mellonella) can make holes in a plastic bag in under an hour. They think microbes in the caterpillar -- as well as the insect itself -- might play a role in breaking down plastic. If the chemical process can be identified, it could lead to a solution to managing plastic waste in the environment.
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A Caterpillar May Lead To a 'Plastic Pollution' Solution

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  • What could go wrong? - Louis Wu
    • by presidenteloco ( 659168 ) on Monday April 24, 2017 @10:17PM (#54295877)

      You mean other than Godzilla-sized caterpillars roaming downtown streets eating people because of their delicious nylon candy coating?

    • by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 ) on Monday April 24, 2017 @10:31PM (#54295927)

      What could go wrong? - Louis Wu

      Well... The plastic-eating microbes could get loose and destroy everything made of plastic - like electrical insulation, etc.... like in the book, Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters [goodreads.com]. But, that's just science fiction.

      • by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Monday April 24, 2017 @10:54PM (#54296005) Journal

        plastic-eating microbes could get loose and destroy everything made of plastic...But, that's just science fiction.

        For 30 odd million years after trees evolved, nothing could eat dead wood. Dead trees piled up and their accumulated weight created the coal deposits that Trump knows and loves so well today.

        Then after a few handy mutations, a microbe learned to eat wood. These microbes then learned to cohabitate in the gut of insects we now call termites in order to get around better. Together they eat houses.

        Could happen with plastic.

        And guitars. [youtube.com]

        • by Anonymous Coward

          Not mine, I built it out of brick, so it is also pneumatic lupine proof.

          • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

            Hey, that would make an excellent children's tale. Let's share royalties.

            Hold it, California earthquakes take down brick. Back to the drawing board...

            • Hold it, California earthquakes take down brick. Back to the drawing board...

              Not needed. You people keep telling others to stop living in areas prone to flooding. Well, stop living in earthquakes-prone areas you numb-nuts.

              • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

                Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, 10 ft. snow, volcanoes, etc., I wonder what places have the least risk? It seems every place can be bleeped by Acts of God in roughly the same proportion.

                • Living on small-to-medium-sized temperate mountains seems to be the best bet. Very low risk of floods, tsunamis, tornadoes, or hurricanes. At this point we can generally know where volcanoes are (even if we mess up about how active they are). Temperate makes the snow less risky, and we can generally know what regions earthquakes are likely to occur in. If you don't mind the snow (or are prepared for it), you can go to a lot more mountains too.

                  Of course, that's not viable for most of the population, but it
          • Pneumatic Lupine, sounds like a cool name for a metal band.

        • by mtmiller100 ( 884473 ) on Tuesday April 25, 2017 @08:05AM (#54297155)
          pro tip:the second someone injects "Trump" or "Hillary" or "Obama", etc. into their non-political post, their post loses at least half of its credibility.
        • What's the citation for the 30 million years with nothing eating dead wood. I've always heard that it was wood and other plant matter that was deposited in bogs and protected from bacteria by acidic water and mud. 30 million years seems like an inordinately long time for a bacterium to go before evolving to eat such an abundant food source.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        That is not at all a strange thought. When the Dutch started building their first waterworks, they used enormous amounts of wood that was not situated in the water before. After a few decades, this brought a plague of the naval shipworm, who gladly made use of this new paradise. The Dutch off course were less amused by this creature that attacked their wooden structures.
    • What could go wrong? - Louis Wu

      Well if all those moths that breed from the plastic bag feeding frenzy get loose the recent Colony Collapses observed by bee keepers will seem like a happy memory which would be very very bad.

  • by RogueWarrior65 ( 678876 ) on Monday April 24, 2017 @09:56PM (#54295807)

    What happens when this species is "accidentally" released near a plastic-lined holding pond for toxic waste?

    • How toxic could it be if it wouldn't kill the caterpillars? Is it just plastic or is it plastic on the inside, concrete on the outside or something similar? Never spent much time around toxic ponds so I'm not familiar.

      Why would caterpillars be any more dangerous than, say, good old explosives? I assume the caterpillars don't eat all plastic at a rate too rapid to stop, unlike a bomb.

      Kind of skeptical any such plastic lined ponds are actually effective at anything aside from liability issues anyway. Or
    • by guises ( 2423402 )
      This is a very common moth and can be found in most parts of the world where you would find such holding ponds. So the answer to your question is: apparently nothing. Unless you start spreading honey on your plastic linings this shouldn't be an issue.
    • by Ranbot ( 2648297 )

      Nothing because based on the article the caterpillars are natural and very common. Researchers are studying the natural bio-chemical process in the caterpillar's gut with the hope it can be applied elsewhere, but that doesn't mean they need caterpillars to apply it.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Bacteria are already evolving that eat plastic. Create an opportunity for energy, and something quickly evolves to take advantage of it:

    https://phys.org/news/2016-03-newly-bacteria-plastic-bottles.html

    Evolution 101.

    • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Monday April 24, 2017 @10:22PM (#54295889)

      Create an opportunity for energy, and something quickly evolves to take advantage of it

      Counter-example: Trees evolved lignin [wikipedia.org] about 360 million years ago, yet for 60 million years no other organism evolved the ability to digest the enormous piles of energy dense material. Most of the world's coal deposits formed during this period [wikipedia.org]. Fungus finally evolved the ability to break down lignin, but the process was not efficient and has been described as "untieing a knot with a flamethrower". The same process is still in use by fungi today.

      • by Kohath ( 38547 ) on Monday April 24, 2017 @11:10PM (#54296039)

        When all you have is a flamethrower, everything looks like a knot.

  • yeah. i got one of those, too.
    • well since their chemical dissolves plastic..

      anyways, it's probably not very practical to dump that chemical in large quantities into the sea unless you want some unforeseen consequences.

      plenty of chemicals will break down the plastics anyways.

      • by Sique ( 173459 )
        Actually, there are not many chemicals that break down plastic. That's why it is such a handy material to make containers from, because it can contain about anything. And that's also why plastic garbage is such a problem. Plastic is mostly destroyed by sunlight and by heat. While the second one goes fast, it is not feasible for the cleanup of whole landscapes (except you want them scorched), the first one is a very slow process.
  • Perfect (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I knew since the beginning that I never needed to care. Such is my belief in life and evolution.

    I can say the same thing about CO2 emissions. There will be vegetation to clean it all up. All we have to do is cut trees and burry them deep, and plant new trees. Problem solved.

  • But won't we have to teach them to swim [slashdot.org] first?

  • Hey dinguses... (Score:5, Informative)

    by wbr1 ( 2538558 ) on Monday April 24, 2017 @10:40PM (#54295949)
    All the previous posters joke about mutant moths and such. In reality no one wants to release these critters. They want to find out what the chemical process is and see if it can be replicated industrially and effeciently. If it works without massive energy input then it is a viable alternative to putting plastic in landfills.
    • by ghoul ( 157158 )

      But then you would end up with anti freeze which is a poison in your water supply. Plastics kill birds and fishes. Anti freeze kills humans. Which lives do you value more?

      • To be honest, the birds and the fishes, there are a handful of people on this planet that I can tolerate, the rest can go fvck themselves.
      • But then you would end up with anti freeze which is a poison in your water supply. Plastics kill birds and fishes. Anti freeze kills humans. Which lives do you value more?

        Cite? The article says nothing about anti-freeze (or anything like it) as a waste product.

        Also, even if there are potentially-hazardous waste products, that doesn't mean it isn't a viable alternative to putting it in landfills. It depends what the waste products are and what is required to make them safe.

  • Plastics aren't one substance - it is a description of a huge and diverse family of materials with some common features.

  • On one side they do not know how it works.

    They think microbes in the caterpillar - as well as the insect itself - might play a role in breaking down plastic.
    If the chemical process can be identified, it could lead to a solution to managing plastic waste in the environment.

    On the other side they patent it

    Dr Bombelli and colleague Federica Bertocchini of the Spanish National Research Council have patented the discovery.

  • I just hope the plastic doesn't fight back, leading to a plastic pollution solution retribution.
    But then, maybe the caterpillars would adapt, leading to a plastic pollution solution retribution evolution.
  • It's all good and wonderful with these critters rapidly multiplying to eat all the plastic. Then it gets loose in food warehouses and grocery stores, either accidentally due to a population explosion or human caused terrorism, and the entire food supply chain collapses as a good number of food containers are breached and other harmful pests and pathogens get in.

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