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The key to breaking down plastic may be in caterpillars’ guts

Insect larvae that eat polyethylene have diverse bacterial cocktail in their stomach

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1:12pm, November 17, 2017
Plodia interpunctella

ANTI-PLASTIC FANTASTIC  The grain-loving larvae of the moth Plodia interpunctella can be a pest in the kitchen. But the critters can also digest plastic that would otherwise take years to degrade.

MINNEAPOLIS — To destroy plastic, caterpillars go with their gut bacteria.

Caterpillars that nibble through polyethylene plastic cultivate a diverse community of digestive bacteria that process the plastic, researchers reported November 13 at the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry North America. Dousing old plastic in a similar mix of bacteria might speed the breakdown of the persistent pollutant.

Polyethylene is widely used to make plastic bags and other packaging materials, but it hangs around in landfills for decades, perhaps even centuries. Recently, scientists identified several species of caterpillars that appear to eat and digest the plastic, breaking it down.  But dumping old shopping bags into a den of caterpillars isn’t really a practical large-scale strategy for getting rid of the plastic. So to figure out the insects’ secret, researchers fed polyethylene to the larvae of pantry moths

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