Rock-eating shipworm discovered in the Phillipines

A rock-eating shipworm has been discovered in the Phillipines by a group of scientists on the island of Bohol.

The inhabitants of the Philippine island of Bohol affirm that they knew of the existence of this animal for centuries but it was not until 2018 that the researcher Reuben Shipway, from the Oceanic Genome Center of Northeastern University (Boston, United States), observed a curious sandstone on the Abatan River (Philippines). He hit it with scarp and hammer and inside it he discovered a first specimen of a semi-lucid worm that seemed hidden in a tunnel. The only scientific references that existed until then dated from 2006 but did not provide details about this mysterious animal embedded in rocks.

After a long investigation, with the study of diverse live worms, this week the details of the new species Lithoredo abatanica are presented.

Despite its appearance, it is not really a worm but a bivalve mollusc, although its shells are atrophied; and its main singularity is that it feeds on the rocks that it drills with its sharp and tiny teeth.

The remains of the digestion of this fluvial species are excreted in the form of sand, and until now the first details of the physical-chemical process of the phenomenon have not been known, according to the authors in an article published this week in the journal Proceedings of The Royal Society B.

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Daniel (Dan) Distel, co-author of the research, and Reuben Shipway have been studying for years the bacteria that facilitate the digestion of various species known as marine worms, which feed on wood (including that of boats). Most of the cases studied so far were marine bivalve mollusks of the family Teredinidae, a group that includes various clams.

Rock-eating shipworm 1

In the framework of this investigation, a similar species was discovered perfectly adapted to live in fresh water and the digestion of stones.

In addition to the importance of the discovery for its biological value, the authors of the new study emphasize that the analysis of bacteria that facilitate the digestion of this species can help in medical research and the development of new medicines. In fact, Shipway and his research colleagues are part of the Philippine Mollusk Symbiont project, an initiative led by universities in the United States and the Philippines to simultaneously document the islands’ biodiversity and look for compounds that could be used in human medicine.

“If you always look in the same place, in the same organisms, you will continue rediscovering the same compounds. But we need new compounds with medical utility, “said Margo Haygood, professor of medical chemistry at the University of Utah who leads the project in the Philippines in an informative article published by Northeastern University.

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“Our new source is these bacteria associated with molluscs, which have been overlooked until recently.”

The theory is that bacteria that coexist within an organism, known as symbiotic bacteria, will have developed ways to be useful without accidentally killing the host. If it is not harmful to a mollusk, it is less likely to be harmful to a human being.

The symbiotic bacteria that live in the bodies of typical shipworms help to break down the wood ingested into usable sugars. The researchers had been studying the bacteria in the woodworm’s worms to see if any of the chemicals they produce could be used as new antibiotics, or in drugs to fight cancer, HIV and other human diseases.

After bringing specimens back to the Northeast Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts, the researchers were able to confirm that the animal is not just a previously undocumented species by scientists, but a completely new genus, which they called Lithoredo abatanica, in reference to the river where the discovery occurred.

Abbad Farid

Abbad holds a degree in Journalism from the University of Cumbria and covers mostly world news for The Talking Democrat