Scientists have discovered how earthworms can digest plant material, such as fallen leaves, that would defeat most other herbivores.
Earthworms are responsible for returning the carbon locked inside dead plant material back into the ground. They drag fallen leaves and other plant material down from the surface and eat them, enriching the soil, and they do this in spite of toxic chemicals produced by plants to deter herbivores.
The scientists, led by Dr Jake Bundy (Computational Systems Medicine) and Dr Manuel Liebeke, have identified molecules in the earthworm gut that counteract the plant’s natural defences and enable digestion. Their work is published today (4 August 2015) in Nature Communications and includes support from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the University of Oxford, and Cardiff University.