"The caterpillars are not just eating the plastic without modifying its chemical make-up. We showed that the polymer chains in polyethylene plastic are actually broken by the wax worms," said Bombelli.
"The caterpillar produces something that breaks the chemical bond, perhaps in its salivary glands or a symbiotic bacteria in its gut. The next steps for us will be to try and identify the molecular processes in this reaction and see if we can isolate the enzyme responsible."
As the molecular details of the process become known, the researchers say it could be used to devise a biotechnological solution on an industrial scale for managing polyethylene waste.