Saturday, 6 March 2010

Animal-eating Plants also Fungal Killers



Carnivorous plants use a potent brew of enzymes to digest ants, beetles, flies, frogs and perhaps the occasional rat. It turns out they also kill fungi in their quest to survive on nutrient-poor soils in hot, wet habitats.

Researchers at the New Tel Aviv University have discovered a range of fungicides in the digestive soup of pitcher plants (in this case Nepenthes khasiana). Professor Aviah Zilberstein says these compounds could help produce a new class of anti-fungal drugs for humans.

Zilberstein and colleagues have already tested some of the chemicals found in the pitchers - the vase-like traps produced at the end of the pitcher plant leaves - and found them effective againts human fungal infections. They've just published this work in the Journal of Experimental Biology, as part of a worldwide research effort to find more effective anti-fungal drugs (many fungal infections have no reliable treaments).

It's thought that these fungicides are important for pitcher plants living in the tropics, where fungi could potentially 'steal' some of the food resources from the pitcher. The compounds are produced in glands at the base of the pitcher - presumably the same glands producing the nectar drawing animals to their death.

The scientists were inspired to look inside the pitcher for fungicides after learning that in India, where Nepenthes khasiana grows naturally, pitcherplant 'juice' is sometimes drunk as a general elixir.

This reinforces the importance of learning from traditional practicies (and testing them critically) as well as conserving as many of the species we live with today as possible.

In fact a related story hit the internet last week. Researchers at Griffith University have found that native lemongrass (Cymbopogon ambiguus) contains a compound called 'eugenol' which helps in releiving symptoms of headaches and migraines. Aboriginal communities around Alice Springs have long used a lemongrass infusion to treat a range of ailments.

Image: My fungal-killing pitcher plant, stationed at the front door of my home.

3 comments:

Chris and his Tomatoes said...

Hello there. I hear tomatoes are quite the carnivore too.

Is this picture from your garden? You have a carnivore plant in your garden? Can you purposely feed it insects?

Tim Entwisle said...

Yes this Nepenthes grows under the decking in front of my house. It needs a fair bit of water - from a nearby rainwater tank - and gets dappled sun. It's healthy although I don't get a lot of new pitchers produced - only one or two active at the moment. I haven't fed it insects myself but yes you can!

Chris and his Tomato said...

Wow, that is the coolest plant ever! I can picture it now...

"Hey guys, I have to go home and feed my plant!"

Is that available in tropical countries? Does it have a simpler name?