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Earthworms can teach us to fight germs

If dirt is so dirty, how do earthworms survive in it? The answer by a team of Russian researchers could be a boon to scientists developing chemical compounds to fight germs and infections.

tech reviews Updated: Jan 29, 2008 10:16 IST

If dirt is so dirty, how do earthworms survive in it? The answer by a team of Russian researchers could be a boon to scientists developing chemical compounds to fight germs and infections.

"We have found killing activities in the earthworm's gut fluid against selected strains of soil bacteria and fungi. We can try to check how human pathogenic micro-organisms would respond to these activities," lead researcher Boris A. Byzov from Moscow Lomonosov State University's (MLSU) faculty of soil science told IANS in an e-mail interview.

"Also, some anti-tumour, insulin-like wound healing compounds have been found in earthworm excrement," he added.

Byzov and his team dug up worms in cow manure-rich soils at MLSU and measured the amount of bacteria and fungi in both soil and fresh excrement of worms.

"Earthworms are considered to have the oldest immune systems among invertebrates. They survive in pathogenic conditions because immunity mechanisms exist within their bodies," Byzov said.

His team of scientists found that worm excreta contained a different micro-organism mixture, with significantly less fungi.

They took fluid from the worm's digestive tract and subjected it to a bacterial and fungal barrage. The results indicated that the earthworm's gut environment acts as a filter and even a fermenter for some types of micro-organisms.

"Earthworms selectively kill and then digest some bacteria and fungi," Byzov said. Worm excreta even changes the way soil absorbs water, he added.

"In principle, anti-microbial compounds can be of interest for biotechnology," Byzov said.

Whatever will scientists dig up next?