NEWS

DO EARTHWORMS HAVE SUPERPOWERS? THERE IS ONLY ONE ANSWER, OR THREE…

Earthworms are the underground engineers of our ecosystem whose multiple roles are too often poorly appreciated and threatened.

  • 25
  • MAY
  • 2017

The impact of deep burrowing earthworms on soils is being showcased next week at a half-term event #wormscience at the Science Museum in London from Monday to Wednesday, 29 – 31st May (11am – 1pm; 2 – 4pm).

The live display and informal presentation include hands-on opportunities to see and explore worm science with the UK’s largest species, Lumbricus terrestris, a familiar sight in many fields and gardens.

Video clips will reveal their deep burrowing activities and the hidden soil structures they create. Visitors will be able to use microscopes to explore the “front porches”, or middens, that earthworms create on the surface above their permanent, life-long burrows.

Unlike casts that indicate only the past presence of a worm, middens provide a quick, non-invasive way of assessing population numbers. Lumbricus terrestris is a deep-burrowing worm and credited with having the biggest impact on soil fertility in the UK.

“Earthworms are our soil ecosystem engineers, invisible below the plants that we eat,” says Jackie Stroud, a soil scientist at Rothamsted Research and the organiser of the hands-on exhibit. They keep the soil healthy, aerating it and easing water flow and root growth. Without them, harvests could be threatened, she says.

“Excessive digging or tilling of soils causes local extinctions of large earthworms,” Stroud notes. “I hope that by revealing the hidden world of these earthworms, it will inspire interest in soil science and ignite debates into whether we are ‘ploughing on regardless’.”

“Ploughing on Regardless” is the title of Stroud’s investigations of the role of earthworms and their relevance to UK agriculture. She is a soil scientist with a Fellowship grant from the Natural Environment Research Council and has begun zero tillage field trials at Rothamsted.

Stroud’s field investigations are comparing the performances of wheat grown with and without the presence of Lumbricus terrestris in the soil to simulate the effects of healthy and unhealthy populations of deep-burrowing, or anecic, earthworms.

To minimise the impact of other factors, she chose a resilient variety of wheat, known as USU-Apogee or “NASA wheat”, which the space administration NASA developed for use on the International Space Station.

Videos of the growing wheat, with and without earthworms, were created from pot samples using Computerised Tomography (CT) scans, which are detailed and non-destructive. 

These microcosms were analysed by X-Ray CT scanning expert, Craig Sturrock, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham, to produce images that provide a fascinating insight into how plants interact with the earthworm burrows below. 

More information:

You can come and see the #wormscience display at the Science Museum from 29 – 31st May 2017 between 11 – 1pm; 2 – 4pm.  We can be found near the front of the Museum on the first floor, next to the café adjacent to the Robots exhibit.  

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)

About BBSRC
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
More information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes

About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.