César Hernández/CSIC
César Hernández/CSIC

These Caterpillars Chow Down on Plastic Bags

César Hernández/CSIC
César Hernández/CSIC

Remember The Very Hungry Caterpillar? He may have some serious real-life competition because scientists have discovered that a common caterpillar can eat and digest plastic. They published their findings in the journal Current Biology.

The wax worm is the larval form of the parasitic wax moth (Galleria mellonella), also known as the honeycomb moth. Adult moths chew their way into beehives, then lay their eggs, which will gorge themselves on honeycomb once they hatch. Because bees didn’t already have enough to deal with.

César Hernández/CSIC

Federica Bertocchini is a research fellow at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain. In her free time, she’s an amateur beekeeper. One day, she picked handfuls of yellow wax worms out of her hives and tossed them into plastic bags, destined for the trash. But a few hours later, the bags were riddled with holes. The prisoners had made a wiggly break for it.

Bertocchini was intrigued. She and her colleagues rounded up hundreds of wax worms and a bunch of shopping bags and put them all together. The larvae did not disappoint; one 100-worm test group perforated a plastic bag in 40 minutes. Left to their own bitey devices, the caterpillars ate through 92 milligrams of plastic, or three percent of a bag, in a half-day. At that rate, it would take them 17 days to make one bag disappear, which is substantially better than the 100 years it would take otherwise.

Anybody can eat plastic, but whether the worms were actually digesting it is another story. To find out, the researchers killed the larva, mashed them up into a paste, and smeared it on plastic film. Just 14 hours later, the caterpillar jam had eaten through 13 percent of the plastic.

Many questions remain. For starters, what exactly is digesting the shopping bags? It’s not clear if the ability to break down the plastic is inherent to the caterpillars, like a digestive enzyme, or if their guts are home to plastic-eating bacteria.

"If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process,” first author Paolo Bombelli of Cambridge said in a statement, “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.”

The researchers also noted that the caterpillars cannot live on shopping bags alone. “These animals don’t live on plastic,” Bertocchini told New Scientist. “They eat it to get out of it, or get to the food behind it. If in the future something evolves to exclusively eat plastic, I don’t know. So far it hasn’t happened.”

© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts Hires Puppy to Sniff Out Art-Munching Bugs
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some dogs are qualified to work at hospitals, fire departments, and airports, but one place you don’t normally see a pooch is in the halls of a fine art museum. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is changing that: As The Boston Globe reports, a young Weimaraner named Riley is the institution’s newest volunteer.

Even without a background in art restoration, Riley will be essential in maintaining the quality of the museum's masterpieces. His job is to sniff out the wood- and canvas-munching pests lurking in the museum’s collection. During the next few months, Riley will be trained to identify the scents of bugs that pose the biggest threat to the museum’s paintings and other artifacts. (Moths, termites, and beetles are some of the worst offenders.)

Some infestations can be spotted with the naked eye, but when that's impossible, the museum staff will rely on Riley to draw attention to the problem after inspecting an object. From there, staff members can examine the piece more closely and pinpoint the source before it spreads.

Riley is just one additional resource for the MFA’s existing pest control program. As far as the museum knows, it's rare for institutions facing similar problems to hire canine help. If the experiment is successful, bug-sniffing dogs may become a common sight in art museums around the world.

[h/t The Boston Globe]

Live Smarter
50 of America’s Most Bed Bug-Infested Cities

It’s easy to find advice on dealing with bed bug infestations, but most people would rather avoid encounters with the parasites in the first place. There are a few ways to do this, from staying at trustworthy hotels to resisting the urge to take in furniture you find on the street. But which part of the country you choose to rest your head can also determine your chances of running into the pests. Before planning your next trip, refer to the list below.

As Condé Nast Traveler reports, these cities come from Orkin’s annual list of the top 50 bed bug cities in America. The pest control company pulled their data from the number of bed bug treatments executed between December 1, 2016 and November 30, 2017. These results cover residential buildings like apartments and houses as well as hotels and motels.

Bed bug infestations are on the rise across the country, according to Orkin entomologist Dr. Tim Husen, but the problem is more apparent in some cities than others. Baltimore tops the list for the second year in a row, followed by Washington D.C. and Chicago. Los Angeles, New York, and Dallas also break the top 10.

A quick glance at the list shows that no part of the country is safe from the unwelcome bedfellows. That doesn’t mean the solution is to sterilize your home and never step outside again: Just be aware if you're living in or a visiting a city with high rates of bed bugs and take the appropriate level of caution. When sleeping in a new bed, no matter what city it’s in, it’s always a good idea to check the mattress first. Pull back the sheets and scan the crevices for blood, eggs, droppings, and the bugs themselves. And if you’re not sure what bed bugs look like, this guide should give you an idea.

Here is the full list:

1. Baltimore

2. Washington, D.C.

3. Chicago

4. Los Angeles

5. Columbus, Ohio

6. Cincinnati, Ohio

7. Detroit

8. New York

9. San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose

10. Dallas-Fort Worth

11. Indianapolis, Indiana

12. Philadelphia

13. Atlanta

14. Cleveland-Akron-Canton, Ohio

15. Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina

16. Richmond-Petersburg, Virginia

17. Houston

18. Norfolk-Portsmouth-Newport News, Virginia

19. Charlotte, North Carolina

20. Buffalo, New York

21. Knoxville, Tennessee

22. Nashville, Tennessee

23. Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek, Michigan

24. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

25. Greenville-Spartanburg, South Carolina-Asheville, North Carolina

26. Champaign-Springfield-Decatur, Illinois

27. Phoenix

28. Denver

29. Milwaukee

30. Hartford-New Haven, Connecticut

31. Charleston-Huntington, West Virginia

32. Boston

33. Syracuse, New York

34. Dayton, Ohio

35. St. Louis, Missouri

36. Seattle

37. Miami-Ft. Lauderdale

38. Flint-Saginaw-Bay City, Michigan

39. Omaha, Nebraska

40. Cedar Rapids-Waterloo-Dubuque, Iowa

41. San Diego, California

42. Lexington, Kentucky

43. Honolulu, Hawaii

44. Louisville, Kentucky

45. Las Vegas

46. Greensboro-High Point-Winston Salem, North Carolina

47. New Orleans, Louisiana

48. Myrtle Beach-Florence, South Carolina

49. Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida

50. Albany-Schenectady-Troy, New York

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]


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