Plant Uses Underground Leaves to Trap and Digest Roundworms

28 January, 2012 at 07:20 | Posted in Nature, Science | Leave a comment
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By David Skoumbourdis
Epoch Times Staff

Scientists have unraveled the mystery behind why Philcoxia—a spiny, purple-flowered plant located in Brazil—grows its leaves underground. The plant, now known to be carnivorous, survives by absorbing and eating tiny worms that it traps on its spiny leaves.

Philcoxia thrives in sand patches located on the Campos Rupestres savanna in Brazil’s central highlands. Until now, scientists have been puzzled as to how Philcoxia was able to survive in such a nutrient-poor environment with only a taproot for taking water and no root system to absorb nutrients.

Plant ecologist Rafael Oliveira of the University of Campinas in São Paulo, Brazil, and colleagues were aware that Philcoxia’s leaves were able to photosynthesize despite being covered by soil, but they got their first hints about how it absorbs nutrients when analyzing its one-millimeter-wide leaves under an electron microscope.

Upon inspection, they found that Philcoxia’s leaves have structures resembling the sticky glands seen in other carnivorous plant species. In addition, tiny round worms called nematodes were seen on the leaves.

To determine what the worms were doing on the leaves, Oliveira’s team grew a bacteria culture containing a nitrogen isotope. The bacteria were fed to nematodes, which in turn were placed near the leaves of several Philcoxia plants.

The next day, the worms had crawled onto the leaves and the nitrogen isotope that was fed to the bacteria had been absorbed into the plants’ tissue. Within two days, 15 percent of the isotope had been absorbed, indicating that the nematodes were a major part of Philcoxia’s diet.

“When I first saw the results, I couldn’t believe those underground leaves were actually eating nematodes,” Oliveira said, according to ScienceNOW.

The researchers didn’t identify any other organisms on the leaves, but Oliveira said they “can’t throw out the idea that [Philcoxia] could digest other really small creatures,” and that they next plan to discover how the plant manages to attract the nematodes.

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Jan. 9.

via Plant Uses Underground Leaves to Trap and Digest Roundworms | Earth & Environment | Science | Epoch Times

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