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Bacteria help carnivorous plants drown their prey

Microbes alter surface tension in the water traps of pitcher plants

By
7:05pm, November 22, 2016
pitcher plants in California

BETTER DROWNING Hooded, yellow-green California pitcher plants are quick to engulf insects in inner water traps, thanks to lurking bacteria.

Bacteria may be a meat-eating plant’s best friends thanks to their power to reduce the surface tension of water.

The carnivorous pitcher plant Darlingtonia californica releases water into the tall vases of its leaves, creating deathtraps where insect prey drown. Water in a pitcher leaf starts clear. But after about a week, thanks to bacteria, it turns “murky brown to a dark red and smells horrible,” says David Armitage of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Now, he’s found that those bacteria can help plants keep insects trapped. Microbial residents reduce the surface tension of water enough for ants and other small insects to slip immediately into the pool instead of perching lightly on the surface, he reports November 23 in Biology Letters.

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