Thursday, October 09, 2008

WARNING: TOXIC, Worms At Lunch
Industrial waste is a problem in many places all over the world. The problem is the waste is toxic, usually made up of many heavy metals. It is very hard to cleanse the soil of heavy metals making the soil conditions unsuitable for many forms of life. However, scientist in the UK have discovered new "superworms" that cannot only survive in polluted industrial lands, but also can eat the toxic heavy metals and turn it into a less harmful form. Once the worms turn the heavy metals into a less harmful form, plants can take up the metals more easily and the plants could be harvested leaving the soil much cleaner.

Scientist found these worms in toxic sites in Wales, and southwest England. The worms can eat lead, zinc, arsenic and copper in harmful toxic forms. One of the lead eating worms found in Wales is found to be a newly evolved species and the two other "superworms" discovered in England are also believed to be a new species. To test these newly evolved worms, scientist used X rays to follow the tiny metal particles through the worms. Apparently the worms create a special protein which makes the metals less dangerous. Leading research scientist Mark Hodson says that the protein "wraps up the metal and keeps it inert and safe so it doesn't interact with the earthworms." However, the toxicity of the metals isn't yet known, because the protein wrap will degrade over time. These worms have evolved into new species driven by the harmful heavy metals in the environments. Any other earth worms would die in this waste but over a relatively short time these "superworms" evolved to not only live in the toxic waste but also eat it.

Posted by Alex Pavidapha

Update 10/14/08: I received several questions about the actual process of making the toxic metals less harmful. Each of the different worms use a protein to make the dangerous metals harmless. They aren't necessarily the same protein, but the function of the proteins seems to be very similar. In regards to the questions about what it means when it says new species, the worms evolved separately in different places and they built up enough differences to be considered separate species. And in the Figure above the top worm is the reference, or an ordinary earth-worm, and the bottom three are each from different toxic locations, two of which were named.


At 11:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's really neat. So, when they eat the metals, do they stay in their body forever, or do the ever get rid of them? Also, what do the labels on your picture mean?

Cecelia Hunt

At 11:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an interesting new discovery, finding animals that adapt to changes caused by humans amazes me. It seems helpful that they would make the metals more useable by plants to get them out of teh soils, but I wonder if tehy could cuase problems by letting the metals move up the food chain more easily if these worms are to be eaten by fish or birds.

posted by Erica Damon

At 11:57 AM, Blogger PWH said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11:58 AM, Blogger PWH said...

These are some sophisticated worms! For such a simple little body structure it's amazing that they are resistant to toxic metals. It's funny because if I were to see one of these worms I would be grossed out and I know many people would probably kill it not even knowing that it can help our environment in the long run. Therefore, do you think that these worms will become nationally used to clean up industrial waste.

Chantal Gomes

At 11:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If predators eat these worms, would it be harmful for them?

- David Huynh

At 5:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really interesting! This sounds like it could be an important discovery for the environment. Did the article mention anything about possible bioaccumulation of these toxic chemicals by the animals that eat the worms?

-Jane de Verges

At 7:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i have read article of bacteria cleaning up toxic wast but this is much bigger. i wonder if they could be moved to other sites.
-Matthew Sousa

At 10:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was an interesting article but at the same time it's sad that animals have to adapt themselves so that they can survive in what humans have done to the planet. I think that reading things like this should encourage more people to find ways to prevent further pollution of the earth.

- Debbie Theodat

At 10:36 PM, Blogger PWH said...

Interesting material! I find it astonishing that these worms are able to adapt to such an extreme environment. I was curious to know how long it took for these "super worms" to evolve to this toxic habitat. You mentioned that these worms are a new species. What does this mean exactly and how new are these worms? Good work.

-Carlos Varela

At 11:04 PM, Blogger PWH said...

It is possible that these superworms have become dependent on the toxic metals. If you took them out of the toxic environment and place them in normal soil could they live.

Charles Scondras

At 11:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The worms create a special protein which makes the metals less dangerous. Does each different "superworm" have its own kind of protein? Is the protein made different for the different kinds of metal consumed?


At 11:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does the protein that these worms produce occur in other "normal" worm species, maybe to help the worm digest other things in the soil? This was a really interesting article and I never would have imagined that earthworms would be so resilient. I also wonder about bioaccumulation occurring as well as how many other species are changing to survive in our increasingly polluted world.

Rachel Carboni

At 12:01 AM, Anonymous Jen Kodela said...

This is really interesting because I work in a phytoremedition lab that is looking at genetically engineering plants to extract heavy metals from soil. It will be really interesting to see what scientific advancements this may help with in the future.


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