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Champions of Science

Latin America and Caribbean Storytelling Challenge: Meet Ing. Ana Del Hierro

Del Hierro’s home country of Ecuador produces 4,139,512 tons of waste each year. Leading a team of researchers, she’s developed a plan to capitalize on the potential of nature to close the nutrient cycle and turn the problem of excess waste into an opportunity—one insect at a time.
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Ing. Ana Del Hierro, MSc, of the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad in Ecuador, is working to identify invertebrates that have the ability to convert organic and plastic wastes to reduce their impact on the environment.

Currently, organic waste and plastics account for 61.4% and 11%, respectively, of the more than 4 million tons of waste produced in Ecuador every year. Over the next two years, Del Hierro hopes that her team’s work with insects will result in a product that will have significant industrial usage.

Thanks to her noteworthy contributions championing scientific advancements, Del Hierro was recognized as one of five winners of the Champions of Science® Storytelling Challenge: Latin America and Caribbean Edition.

Del Hierro’s Submission
Industrialization, demographic growth and global warming are worldwide problems exerting more and more pressure on natural resources. It has been estimated that if sustainable solutions are not found to deal with these problems, world food production would have to increase by 70% before 2050 to be able to feed the world’s 9.7 billion inhabitants. Ecuador is home to a wide variety of insects but, sadly, very little is known about them, as just 19.98% of articles and discoveries refer to butterflies and 2.5% to insects of the dipteral order.

Nevertheless, no scientific publication has made reference to the potential of insects to convert organic waste or plastics, despite the fact that these two types of waste account for 61.4% and 11%, respectively, of the 4,139,512 tons of waste produced in Ecuador every year.

In view of the urgent need to come up with solutions to use waste in such a manner so as to reduce the ecological footprint caused by waste produced in Ecuador, the aim of the project I am leading is to identify invertebrates that have the potential to convert organic waste and plastics and that may be used as a tool that exploits nature’s potential to close the nutrient cycle and turn the problem of excess waste into an opportunity to create input for industry.

Making use of waste by means of invertebrates is very different from traditional bioconversion, because of the wide range of uses to which invertebrates may be put, such as speeding up the degradation of all types of organic waste, reducing greenhouse gas and providing a source of food for poultry and shrimps. Using insects of the annelid, dipteral, lepidopteran and coleopteran orders to biodegrade polymers is a great opportunity to make use of agricultural pests and reduce waste that would otherwise cause environmental problems that affect the environment.

Our research is divided into four stages, starting with collecting and identifying species in the field that may be used to convert organic waste and plastics; stage two comprises multiplying the species collected and adapting them to greenhouse conditions to calculate reproduction rates, degradation indexes, conversion time and taxonomic identification; stage three comprises a series of microbiological analyses of the composition of the waste of invertebrates to observe degradation of material and identify species molecularly to establish if they are native species that have not yet been described.

We are currently at the initial identification stage and in two years we hope to be able to produce the first report on native species of Ecuador that have the capability of degrading organic waste and plastics. Insects form a very diverse and under exploited bioresource that have the potential of a wide variety of uses. As Ecuador is a very diverse country, we are sure that we will come across new native degrading species to provide a rapid response to deal with excess waste that is generally found together: plastics and organic material.

About the Latin America and Caribbean Storytelling Challenge
Through the Champions of Science® Storytelling Challenge: Latin America and Caribbean Edition, Johnson & Johnson invited innovators working in the region to share their stories to help engage the public, encourage advocacy for scientific innovation and inspire youth in the region to pursue STEM careers that will help change the trajectory of health for humanity.

After receiving nearly 100 submissions between January and March 2019, an independent committee of scientists, policymakers and science journalists reviewed the applications and determined the winners.

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