World Environment Day is here, and with it some of us may take a pause from the breakneck speed of our lives, to reflect on things around us i.e. the state of the environment. Whether it is the black soiled waters lapping up to your feet on your summer beach vacation, or that well-crafted environmental ad that triggered a thought, treat today as a day to spare a thought for our wonderful planet that’s brimming with surprises! And the Blue Planet sure is brimming with life despite the unprecedented pressures that we humans have put on it!
The Theme for World Environment Day 2017 is ‘Connecting People to Nature’. So apt, isn’t it? When we seem to be constantly connected to everything around us (read our smartphones, tablets, smartwatches and 4G internet). Sadly, we have lost our primordial connect with those things that could and would truly benefit us- Vitamin N aka Nature! So here’s an interesting news about a possible latest discovery about saving the environment, which will hopefully urge us to connect with nature heart-to-heart! This one’s dedicated to the sheer magnificence that Nature carries, including her self-healing powers!
A paper that was recently published in Current Biology, brings to light the super powers of a moth- its ability to chew plastic! As most inventions are, this super species was found out by Federica Bertocchini, a beekeeper and biologist at the Cantabria University by accident (and observation), when she noticed some caterpillars chewing through wax on her desk. To study them better, she bunched them together in a plastic bag, and soon the bag was left with nothing but holes, with little trace of the nibbling creatures! After a brief search and collection spree, Federica identified the caterpillars as the larvae of the greater wax moth. Their voracious appetite for plastic as seen before, sparked a thought- could they be used as agents for garbage degradation and disposal? What followed was an experimental ordeal with Paolo Bombelli and Christopher Howe, biochemists at Cambridge, to look into this possible opportunity to reduce the ill-effects of plastic on our environment!
The greater wax moth is a pest of bees, and is known to extensively chew through bees wax. It was interesting to note that most plastics are bound together by methylene bridges interlinked together, similar to how bees wax is. So the question to answer was- were these little buddies using the same technique of breaking those wax bonds, to break the plastic bonds? Studies indicated that each larvae ate an average of 2.2 holes, three millimetres across, every hour, of the shopping plastic. This translated to one hour of chewing by one caterpillar to devour one milligram of the shopping bag. With an average weight of a shopping bag weighing about three grams, 100 larvae could devour one bag a month if they spent half their lives eating. Now that’s a lot of gobbling activity, but it sure looks promising.
Of course, the research has some very vital unanswered questions. Do the caterpillars derive nutrition from the plastic? If not, their utility as garbage disposers will be limited because they would need other nutrients to sustain. Are their faeces harmless? If not, releasing such larvae in large numbers on garbage areas may lead to toxic releases. And many more.
Despite this, the very fact that the organism does eat plastic, willingly and at a fast pace, is a breakthrough finding. Scientists have been trying to delve deep into nature to find the answers to help save nature herself. A promising prospect was seen in the bacterium, the Nocardia asteroids. However, the species was extremely slow, degrading a plastic film of half millimetre thickness over a period of six months. Too time consuming for the objective!
Now that’s a great example of how nature has a way to heal her own wounds, maybe we need to just find the right one and make it available in the right form? The search for a plastic-saviour continues as the environment continuous to be poisoned by the tons and tons of plastic dumped into it. Maybe a better way out is to take a pledge this World Environment Day to make judicious use of our resources by making small changes in our lives!
Credit: Rhucha Kulkarni