Interview with Dr. Federica Bertocchini

In April 2017, the scientist Dr. Federica Bertocchini and her colleagues Paolo Bombelli und Christopher J. Howe published a discovery in the Spanish magazine „Current Biology“, that received great public attention: By chance, the discovered that the Galleria mellonella can biodegrade polyethylene. Polyethylene and polypropylene represent about 92 percent of global plastic production – and up to now, they are almost impossible to biodegrade. Dr. Federica Bertocchini gladly answered our questions on her promising discovery regarding the fight against plastic pollution.

In some articles it says that you were actually researching beeswax when you made the famous discovery. Would you describe to us, how exactly you came to discover that the caterpillar ate plastic?

I was not working on beeswax. My main line of investigation is the early development of the vertebrate embryo, using chick as experimental system. The discovery was accidental: I am a beekeeper in my free time, as a hobby, and I store some of my beehives, free of bees, at home; cleaning the honeycombs, I realized that they were infested with wax worms, as usual I would say, in the sense that the wax worms are a plague for beekeepers; I put the worms in a plastic bag and after a while I realized that the bag was riddled with holes and the worms were all around in my flat.

Does the media display a bigger image of the discovery than your findings actually are?

These findings are part of a line of interest and investigation, that is plastic biodegradation by agent found in nature. Example: three years ago a Chinese/American group discovered, and published, that another Lepidoptera was able to degrade PE, although in longer times; last year a Japanese group published that the plastic of plastic bottles was biodegraded by two bacteria. This means that a channel of investigation is opening up and it might be able to give us some answers in the future. Our research is part of this kind of research.

Theoretically asked, can the Galleria mellonella really be the solution to our pollution problem? How do you see their potential in solving the plastic problem?

We need to dissect the molecular devices responsible for this effect. Once we know that, we might be able to produce the hypothetical molecule in large scale and use it as a tool to biodegrade plastic. But we are at the first phase, that is the observation. From here to the putative biotechnological application some time will pass.

How many caterpillars would it take – hypothetically – to constantly fight the environmental pollution through plastic?

We do not know that. The idea of actually using the caterpillars never crossed our mind. They are a plague for the environment, you cannot throw millions of worms in the environment, the equilibrium in nature must be respected.

How do these caterpillars digest the plastic? Is it a form of plastic that they excrete? How much plastic can one of them eat in a day? Is it harmful to them to eat plastic or does is have a nutritious effect? And are there other synthetic materials that are biodegradable?

We do not know that yet. That’s something to investigate.

Were the topics synthetic materials and plastic pollution something you worked on before?

No, they weren’t.

Will you do research yourself in that matter or will your specialized colleagues continue?

Yes, with specialized colleagues.

What are the next steps in the context of fighting plastic pollution through the help of caterpillars?

Studying the molecular mechanisms responsible of the biodegradation.

In your opinion, is the media coverage of this topic sufficient?

In the past few years, and even more in the past year, the issue of plastic pollution, or pollution in general, has been discussed more and more. In my opinion, given the dramatic situation of our planet, talking about climate change, pollution and similar matters is never enough, they should talk more and push more, generally speaking.

Do you give speeches? Do you collect financial help in order for the research to proceed?

We are in that phase now, trying to get funding to continue.