They have long been called a vital part of the ecosystem and now earthworms’ secret toxin diet is revealed and resolved when researchers took up the task of finding out how. Dead or decaying plants leave toxins that would normally be hazardous for other animals, but not for earthworms.
A study was conducted by an international team of researchers, led by Dr. Jake Bundy from Imperial College London in England and Dr. Manuel Liebeke from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Germany. The two researchers discovered how earthworms are able to withstand the dangerous toxins found in dead leaves scattered across the ground.
By using modern visualization techniques that worked through mass spectrometry, they discovered a molecule in the earthworm’s gut that combats the toxin found in plants and allows them to provide nutrition to the soil. All plants make polyphenois, a compound that acts as an antioxidant which gives them their color, but is also impossible for animals to digest.
Earthworms, however, have a very efficient way of completing that task, by producing drilodefensins and easily digesting any sort of plant material fallen on the ground. It counteracts the plant’s natural defenses and, thus, returns the carbon dioxide locked into dead leaves back into the soil and into circulation. They drag the plant down into the earth and enrich its composition simply by feeding.
Drilodefensins are very abundantly found within earthworms, and it’s the precise difference between their ability to process the toxins to that of other herbivores who simply can’t. It plays a vital role in the ecosystem, and our world would not be the same without them, according to Dr. Bundy.
Layers upon layers of leaves would gather up on the ground as it would take much longer for them to disappear and the entire system of carbon dioxide cycling would be unquestioningly disrupted. It is quite remarkable how a small creature has such a big impact on the entire ecosystem, and it all comes down to drilodefensins.
Previously called “nature’s ploughs” by Charles Darwin himself, earthworms are said to have a natural, efficient and high beneficial way of coping with the toxins found in dead plants. Simply put, it’s through recycling their drilofensins and producing more depending on the content of polyphenois.
Nature’s engineers pose a key role for nature, due to the simple gut molecule, and are essential to the nutrients of our soil and smooth functioning of our ecosystems.
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