Sunday, 24 December 2017

The Very Hungry, Plastic Eating, Caterpillar and the Truth

About 40% of plastics we use are made from a chemical called polyethylene (PE). The vast majority of this plastic ends up in landfill which is a significant, global problem and new solutions on how to get rid of this “indestructible” material are desperately needed.
There have been a few attempts to use microorganisms to bio-degrade plastics but this has still taken months to achieve.

Thankfully, in April 2017 Christopher J. Howe (University of Cambridge) and Federica Bertocchini (University of Cantabria, Spain) found that the wax moth caterpillar – also known as the wax worm – could eat and digest plastic bags!
This could mean a new revolutionary way to biodegrade plastics!

Photo Credit: PixaBay

Bertocchini and Howe et al. found that holes would appear within 40 minutes of the caterpillars being in a plastic bag, indicating that the caterpillars were eating it.
To see if the caterpillars were actually digesting the plastic and breaking it down into other stuff (called ethylene glycol), or if they were simply munching on the plastic bag because it was there, Bertocchini put caterpillar “mush” onto the bags.
The “mush” (scientific word – homogenate) had all the enzymes the caterpillar would use to digest plastic. This means that just spreading the homogenate onto the bag should have the same effect as if an alive caterpillar was eating it.
The results showed the breakdown product of plastic where the caterpillar homogenate was, but not in the bag with no caterpillar homogenate. This showed that caterpillars were digesting the plastic bags!
The conclusion of the paper by Bertocchini and Howe et al. was that the caterpillars are digesting the plastic, but as it is not clear how they are doing this further work needs doing.
No. It was not clear at all.
It was not clear, whether the caterpillar is digesting the plastic OR if this revolutionary discovery is actually false! - According to Till Opatz and colleagues who "respectfully disagree with the methodology and conclusion from this paper."
Opatz et al. looked at the original data and experiments and found that there was not enough proof that the caterpillars were biodegrading the plastic.
Opatz was particularly doubtful about the detection of the breakdown product and that the conclusions drawn from the data were questionable. To show this, Opatz re-created the experiment in a more controlled way and found no evidence that the plastic breakdown product was produced.

http://www. uni-mainz. de/ bilder_presse/ 09_orgchemie_raupe_polyethylen_02. jpg. Co-workers of Professor Dr. Till Opatz analyze ground pork as an animal protein-fat-mixture on the infrared spectrometer. photo/©: Carina Weber and Stefan Pusch, Institute of Organic Chemistry

Opatz also showed that the signal for the break-down product of plastic could also be seen when smearing plastic bags with egg yolk and ground pork, showing that just having the caterpillar homogenate on the bag could make it look like it was being broken down, when in fact, it wasn’t.
These experiments do not prove that the original report was wrong – but it does make it highly doubtful that plastic eating caterpillars, which will save the planet, actually exist.

To read more about this story, follow the below links:

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Cleaning our Kitchen Sponge doesn’t stop Germs

We live in a world that is literally covered in microbes and our kitchens and bathrooms are particularly good environments for microbes to grow. To stop this from happening, wiping down your kitchen surfaces with a sponge to clean them is common practice, but are the sponges we use actually clean?

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Journalism Portfolio - New Article in The Munich Eye

As you may or may not know, I do lots of other science communication things outside of this blog.

You can read my latest article for The Munich Eye on the recent 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology by following the link below…

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Zest of the Forest

Slowing down the loss of biodiversity and the effects of climate change are incredibly important activities in today’s world. One way of doing both of these things is to restore tropical forests on land that has no other use.
But restoring tropical forests is no quick-fix job as this new, 19-year study by Dr Tim Treuer and colleagues at Princeton University have shown.

Read on to find out what oranges have to do with this study...

Sunday, 30 July 2017

6 Amazing Things Before Breakfast #2

Welcome to the second post in my weekly blog series where you’ll learn 6 amazing things before breakfast. This post is a week late and I am sorry but, I was lucky enough to spend a week in Oxford for a chemistry conference and wasn’t able to post last week. You can check out my twitter @ALifeinBioMed for pictures of my trip!

So, let's learn #6AmazingThingsBeforeBreakfast …

Sunday, 16 July 2017

6 Amazing Things Before Breakfast #1

This is the first post of my new weekly series where you will find 6 amazing new stories from the previous week - and hopefully read about them before breakfast. So grab that coffee and get comfy.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Moth Eyes and Antireflective Phones

Summer is here! So that also means squinting really hard to try and read things on your phone screen outside – an annoyance I know all too well.
However, scientists at the College of Optics and Photonics (CREOL), University of Central Florida have developed a new antireflection film that could stop this problem happening. Currently, an iPhone has a surface reflection of 4.4% but this new material has only 0.23% surface reflection meaning that a lot less light will reflect off the surface making it easier to read in bright sunshine.