Newly discovered gut compounds let the decomposers do what they do best with leaf litter
M. Liebeke et al/Nature Communications 2015
For not-so-picky eaters, it’s best to have a tough tummy — take it from earthworms.
The wriggling soil dwellers tote chemicals in their guts to counteract hazardous ingredients in plant chow, researchers report online August 4 in Nature Communications. The finding explains how earthworms worldwide can stand to swallow the thousands of tons of plant debris that they churn into fertilizer each year.
“The worms do a great job of munching up all the organic matter,” says study coauthor Manuel Liebeke, a biochemist at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany. But, he says, nobody had figured out how they handle harmful plant chemicals called polyphenols.
Plants use polyphenols to deter herbivores from feasting on them. The chemicals, which may taste unpleasant, can also shut down enzymes that critters use to digest and