Skip to main content

A Tropical Pitcher Plant and Enzymes for Gluten Digestion

Linda Crampton is a writer and experienced science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about science and nature.

Pitchers of Nepenthes ampullaria in Malaysia

Pitchers of Nepenthes ampullaria in Malaysia

A Pitcher Plant and Gluten Digestion

Pitcher plants are carnivorous organisms that trap and digest prey. They bear cup or tube-like containers made from modified leaves. These containers, or pitchers, contain digestive fluid. Animals and other organic material that fall into a pitcher are broken down and their components used by the plant.

Many types of pitcher plants exist. A tropical species named Nepenthes ampullaria may have an important benefit for humans. Researchers have discovered that enzymes made by the plant can digest gluten, a protein complex present in certain grains.

In people with celiac disease, the presence of gluten in the small intestine triggers an immune system response that damages the intestinal lining. This can lead to some very serious symptoms. The plant enzymes might be able to digest gluten in the acidic conditions of a patient's stomach, preventing the protein from entering and damaging the small intestine. Further research is needed to confirm this interesting and perhaps very significant possibility.

The ground pitchers at the top of the photo are joined to the main part of the plant (shown at the bottom of the photo) by underground rhizomes.

The ground pitchers at the top of the photo are joined to the main part of the plant (shown at the bottom of the photo) by underground rhizomes.

Why Are Pitcher Plants Carnivorous?

Pitcher plants are interesting and intriguing organisms. They're found in several families. The pitchers of different species may look different and have different features, but they all serve the same function.

Like other plants, pitcher plants carry out photosynthesis to produce food. They absorb chemicals from the air and the soil in order to do this. The soil in which they grow is poor in nitrogen. This element is needed to make DNA, RNA, and proteins. DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid contains the genes of an organism. RNA or ribonucleic acid is necessary in order for a cell to carry out the instructions in the genetic code of the DNA.

Pitcher plants solve the problem of insufficient nitrogen by trapping and digesting animals, whose bodies contain the element. Other nutrients in the bodies are also used. The animals that are caught are generally insects, although sometimes larger creatures fall into the pitchers and are digested.

Some pitcher plants digest feces that's dropped into the pitchers by rodents. The animals feed on nectar produced at the rim of the pitcher. The relationship is beneficial for both organisms, although occasionally an accident happens and a rodent falls into the pitcher.

Nepenthes rajah pitchers may be as tall as fourteen inches. The plant sometimes catches small rodents or amphibians. Its normal prey is insects.

Nepenthes rajah pitchers may be as tall as fourteen inches. The plant sometimes catches small rodents or amphibians. Its normal prey is insects.

Pitfall Traps and Prey Digestion

The pitchers of carnivorous plants are also known as pitfall traps. They are deep containers in relation to the size of the intended prey. They often have a lid, or operculum, that reduces the dilution of the digestive liquid by rain water.

Pitchers generally have special features to attract prey. These include the presence of sweet nectar or of colours that are significant for insects. The traps have special precautions to prevent the escape of an animal once it falls into the liquid. The interior walls of the pitcher are usually slippery, for example. In addition, the digestive liquid that covers trapped insects makes it impossible for them to fly.

Pitcher plants produce an array of digestive enzymes. They are able to break down the entire body of an insect, including the chitin that forms the outer covering. Some of the enzymes may be useful for humans.

Nepenthes ampullaria can be bought in some plant nurseries. It's often an interesting houseplant.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

The Nepenthes ampullaria Plant

Nepenthes ampullaria is a climbing plant that grows on the forest floor in Borneo, Sumatra, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and New Guinea. The plant does trap and digest insects, but unlike many of its relatives it also feeds on leaf litter that falls into the pitchers. This means that it's both a carnivore and a detritivore (an organism that feeds on detritus, or small fragments of dead creatures).

The leaves of the plant are long, narrow, and pointed. The lower leaves are borne in a basal rosette while the upper ones are spread out along the vertical or climbing stems. The plant becomes woody as it matures.

Vertical stems of the plant bear small flowers arranged in a structure called a panicle, which is shown in the photo below. Each flower in the panicle is yellow-green in colour. The fruit is a capsule that changes from green to brown as it ripens.

Panicles and flowers of Nepenthes ampullaria

Panicles and flowers of Nepenthes ampullaria

Pitcher Facts

Nepenthes ampullaria produces both aerial pitchers and terrestrial ones. The pitchers are attractive and have a variety of colours. They are green, yellow-green, red, speckled red and green, or speckled red and yellow. They have a small operculum that is folded backwards.

Aerial pitchers are attached to a tendril that extends from the tip of a leaf's midrib. They are produced by the leaves in the basal rosette and by the lower leaves of the climbing stems. The plant also produces a cluster of pitchers that spread over the ground and are called terrestrial or basal pitchers, as shown in the second photo in this article. The terrestrial pitchers are produced by underground and horizontal stems known as rhizomes. They give the impression that they are separate from the main plant, but they are connected to it.

The digestive fluid of Nepenthes is acidic, like the fluid in our stomach. In addition, it contains a large bacterial population. These bacteria may help to digest food, just like the bacteria in our intestine. The plant's similarity to our digestive tract is interesting and could be significant with respect to disease treatment.

Species in the genus Nepenthes are sometimes known as monkey cups. The name arose from the idea that monkeys fed on the liquid in the pitchers.

Facts About Celiac Disease

Untreated celiac disease is a serious condition. The small intestine is the site of most of the food digestion in the body and of nutrient absorption. In some people, gluten activates the immune system inappropriately and causes inflammation of the intestinal lining. In addition, villi are damaged and flattened. The villi are tiny folds on the intestinal lining that absorb nutrients. When the villi are flattened, the ability to absorb nutrients from food is greatly reduced. Another problem is that people with untreated celiac disease may have an increased risk of intestinal cancer.

There are many possible symptoms of celiac disease. Diarrhea and abdominal pain are frequent effects, but patients may have additional or different symptoms. Since nutrients are hindered in their passage through the intestinal lining and into the bloodstream, problems may appear in many areas of the body.

A vital treatment for the disease is to eliminate gluten from the diet. A doctor may recommend additional treatments to help a patient. The doctor's recommendations generally allow the villi to regenerate and symptoms to disappear. As described below, however, it can sometimes be a challenge to follow a truly gluten-free diet. This is one reason why the search for suitable digestive enzymes is important.

The video below is primarily aimed at children but also contains some useful information for adults. Anyone who suspects (or knows) that they have celiac disease should consult a doctor for a diagnosis and then follow his or her advice. The disease information in this article is given for general interest.

Gluten in Grains

Gluten is found in all forms of wheat, including kamult and spelt. It's also a popular food additive. It gives elasticity and binding power to baked goods and stops them from crumbling. Wheat gluten is actually a complex of two types of proteins—gliadins and glutenins. The gliadins are believed to be responsible for the problems in celiac disease. The word "gliadins" is sometimes used in the singular to refer to the entire group of chemicals.

Rye contains secalins, which are related to gliadins, and barley contains related hordeins. Both types of chemicals trigger intestinal damage in people with celiac disease. Rye and barley are generally said to be gluten-containing grains, even though the relevant chemicals are different from those in wheat.

Avenins in oats are also related to gliadins but are thought to be safe for people with celiac disease. Oats that are certified gluten-free (that is, not contaminated by wheat, rye, or barley) are available in some stores, especially health food markets. Someone with celiac disease should check with their doctor about the advisability of eating these oats, however, because there is some debate about the safety of the grain.

Wheat contains gluten, which is harmful for people with celiac disease.

Wheat contains gluten, which is harmful for people with celiac disease.

Rice, corn, millet, buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa, sorghum, and teff contain no gluten and are suitable grains or grain substitutes for people with celiac disease.

A Gluten-Free Diet

Someone with celiac disease must eliminate all wheat, rye, and barley from their diet as well as any product containing added gluten. In addition, a patient must avoid items that have come into contact with unsuitable food, such as utensils and kitchen surfaces. Even being in a room with flour in the air can be dangerous if the flour contains gluten.

In reality, it's hard to reach a zero gluten level due to contamination of food at some point in its harvest and/or preparation. In North America, a food must contain less than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten in order to be labelled gluten-free.

It's important that someone with celiac disease does their best to eliminate gluten from their diet in order to reduce the chance of continual low-level inflammation in their intestine.

Following a Gluten-Free Diet

The gluten-free diet is sometimes difficult to follow, for a variety of reasons.

  • A person must be constantly vigilant about their diet and about food contamination.
  • Food contamination with gluten is impossible to detect visually.
  • Going to restaurants may be a risky pursuit because ingredients are often unknown.
  • Even when it's certain that food in a restaurant meal normally contains no gluten, it may have been contaminated in the kitchen.
  • Travelling requires careful planning because suitable food may be unavailable.
  • Wheat, rye, and barley (and oats) are nutritious foods. It's important to compensate for the missing nutrients when the grains are eliminated from the diet.
  • Gluten-free products are often more expensive than the equivalent ones containing gluten.
  • There is often a wider choice of healthy processed food that contains gluten than of healthy processed food without the substance.
  • The widest variety of gluten-free foods is found in health food markets, which are not as common as general markets.

Though it's certainly possible to follow a healthy diet while avoiding gluten, it's easier to do this when the substance doesn't need to be avoided. Enzymes that destroy gluten in the stomach before it reaches the small intestine and causes harm would be very useful. Pitcher plant enzymes might be able to perform this task.

Buckwheat or soba noodles aren't made from wheat and don't contain gluten, despite their name.

Buckwheat or soba noodles aren't made from wheat and don't contain gluten, despite their name.

Pitcher Plant Enzymes for Gluten Breakdown

The research into digestion of gluten by pitcher plant enzymes was led by David Schriemer. He's a biochemist and associate professor at the Cumming School of Medicine. The school is part of the University of Calgary in Alberta.

Enzymes that break down gluten have already been discovered. According to Schriemer, however, a major problem is that an amount of enzyme almost as large as the amount of food is required in order to remove gluten. This treatment isn't practical for people with celiac disease.

The research team found that the combination of two enzymes made by Nepenthes ampullaria and by a hybrid form of Nepenthes can digest gliadin. The enzymes can be used in much smaller quantities than other ones. The pitcher plant chemicals are called nepenthesin and neprosin. The latter substance was discovered during the research.

The plant chemicals digested gluten in both lab equipment and animal stomachs. Very significantly, mice sensitive to the substance showed no intestinal inflammation when eating gluten-containing food and the enzyme combination. It's important to note that although results in rodents often apply to humans, this isn't always the case.

Remarkably low doses enhance gliadin solubilization rates, and degrade gliadin slurries within the pH and temporal constraints of human gastric digestion. Potencies in excess of 1200:1 (substrate-to-enzyme) are achieved.

— University of Calgary Research Team

Further Research Is Needed

The enzymes from pitcher plants sound very promising, but more research is needed. It's important to check that the chemicals cause no harm to humans and that they consistently digest all gluten in the digestive tract before it reaches the intestine. The ratio of enzyme to ingested food is an important consideration. It's also important to check that the continual use of the chemicals prevents both inflammation and villi flattening.

The research explored the breakdown of gliadin in wheat. We need to know whether the related chemicals in rye and barley are also digested. Although wheat gliadin seems to be the major instigator of intestinal damage in celiac disease, rye and barley also play a role, at least according to our current understanding of the disease.

Availability of the Enzymes

David Schriemer has established a commercial company with the aim of bringing the plant enzymes to market. He says that this will be a multi-year project. Scientists need to fully understand the actions of the chemicals and to solve any problems before clinical trials take place in humans. The production of sufficient quantities of the enzymes for celiac disease patients is also an important problem to solve.

In 2021, Schriemer and his colleagues filed a patent application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The application was for the use of nepenthesin for "the treatment of gluten intolerance and related conditions." It seems that the researchers are still exploring the enzyme, which could be good news. Nepenthesin and perhaps neprosin could eventually make food choices much easier for people with celiac disease. It would be interesting to know whether this is actually the case and whether other enzymes from pitcher plants have benefits for us.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2016 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 24, 2017:

Yes, nature can certainly be wonderful! The natural world has so much to offer us if we treat it wisely. Thank you very much for the comment, Manatita.

manatita44 on February 24, 2017:

Isn't mother nature wonderful! So many wonders to unfold! Actually you blended your biology well with the celiac problems and showed nicely how they related and gives hope to we sufferers of similar problems. Excellently presented as usual.

simplehappylife on February 23, 2017:

Oh, I agree :)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 23, 2017:

I appreciate your comment, simplehappylife. I hope that many more medicinal chemicals are found in plants. There could be some very helpful but as yet undiscovered substances in the plant kingdom.

simplehappylife on February 23, 2017:

Very interesting. I had no idea that Pitcher plants had medicinal purposes. I live in Alabama and they grow wild in certain parts here. I also didn't know much about gluten and celiac disease, thank you for such an informative article :)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 09, 2016:

Hi, Peggy. It will be wonderful if the pitcher plant proves to be useful. Thanks for the comment and the share!

Peggy Woods on December 09, 2016:

That would be wonderful if they can mass market the plant enzymes in a safe manner to help people who are allergic to foods containing gluten. I always learn things by reading your articles Linda. Thanks for this educational one. Those pitcher plants are quite amazing! Will be sharing!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 06, 2016:

Thank you very much for the comment and all the shares, Audrey. I appreciate your visit a great deal.

vocalcoach on December 06, 2016:

What an amazing plant the Pitcher is! Thanks for introducing this to me. I also learned a great deal about celiac disease and the effects of gluten. I'll start shopping for gluten-free foods. Thanks so much Alicia. Pinning to my "Healthy Food" board and sharing with followers and twitter.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 22, 2016:

Hi, aesta1. Thanks for the visit. Many people can eat gluten with no problem, but if you're gluten intolerant it is important to be careful with the diet.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on November 22, 2016:

I am only beginning to understand many of the info you gave here. What I thought was healthy was not really. We need to make some changes to our diet once again.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 22, 2016:

Thank you very much for the comment Manatita. I appreciate your visit and your comment a great deal, as always. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, too. I'm glad that we make money on our articles via the Ad program.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 20, 2016:

Thank you very much for the comment, MsDora. I always appreciate your visits.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on November 20, 2016:

Thanks for the good news about the pitcher plant gluten-digestion potential although we have to wait. You make me understand for the first time why people differ on whether oats are good or not good for the gluten intolerant (as I am). Thanks for this and all your other informative articles.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 17, 2016:

Thanks, Mel. Carnivorous plants remind me of science fiction stories, too!

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on November 17, 2016:

Great work. As usual, I learned a ton about these kind of creepy but fascinating science fiction plants.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 16, 2016:

Hi, Audrey. I hope it comes to fruition, too. I have great sympathy for the struggles faced by some people with celiac disease.

Audrey Howitt from California on November 16, 2016:

This was fascinating! I hope this comes to fruition, as I know several people who suffer with this condition

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 16, 2016:

Thanks, Devika. The research is promising. I hope the promise is fulfilled.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 16, 2016:

I admire your encouragement of this research so interesting and certainly is worth looking into.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 15, 2016:

Thanks for the comment, Vellur. I hope the enzymes do prove to be helpful for people with celiac disease. The plant could be very useful.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on November 15, 2016:

An interesting and informative article, it is amazing how an enzyme secreted in the pitcher plant can help with treating the celiac condition in humans. Hope more research goes into this, and they come out with a cure. Great article, voted up.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 15, 2016:

Hi, Blossom. Thank you very much for the comment and for sharing the interesting information. I'm glad you've found relief for your discomfort. I understand a little of what you've experienced because my sister has recently been put on the FODMAP diet, too. The eating plan has definitely helped her. I'm not following the plan, but I do limit wheat in my diet because it causes problems for me as well. I will probably eliminate wheat entirely soon. I always tell myself that I was silly to eat it when I experience the results!

Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on November 15, 2016:

Oh, you have put so much research into collating this article! It is so interesting. For many years I reacted to wheat; as a child I loved the crunch of Weetbix, but always came out in big hives when I ate them. As a teen, people would remark on my bright pink cheeks when I was on my way home from school; I would thank them for the compliment, while saying to myself, 'I know why, it's because I have such a dreadful pain in my tummy.' At home, I'd complain to my mother and she'd tell me to have a sandwich of bread and butter with ginger powder, but it never seemed to do a thing. At last, now I'm in my 80s, a gastroenterologist has put me on the FODMAP diet, which includes gluten-free, and at long last I can enjoy a meal without pains in the tummy afterwards!

I also enjoyed reading about the Pitcher Plants and watching the videos, as when we lived in PNG, they grew near the hot springs (which included bubbling mud and a geyser) on our island, and were fascinating to watch. I imagine our little Australian sundews are related, as they do the same kind of thing.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 14, 2016:

Thank you, Larry. I always appreciate your visits.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 14, 2016:

Hi, RTalloni. Like you, I suspect that plants may well have some wonderful but undiscovered medicinal benefits for us. My worry is that humans are destroying so much of nature that we may never discover some of these benefits.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on November 14, 2016:

Cool read as always:-)

RTalloni on November 14, 2016:

Always interesting, thanks for highlighting these enzymes and their source. I'll understand something of what's meant the next time I hear of nepenthesin and neprosin thanks to your post, and I hope I'll hear of them again sooner than later. Because creation is so vast and intricate it has to be that we've only touched the surface of amazing connections of their benefits to our health.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 14, 2016:

Hi, Blond Logic. Thank you for the comment. I think that the ways in which plants help human health are very interesting. I hope the new discovery about plant enzymes and gluten digestion is beneficial for people with celiac disease.

manatita44 from london on November 14, 2016:

Another amazing and well written Hub. Are you still working in this field? You should be making money for this. Find the pertinent site or magazine, if you have not already done so, my Sweet Alicia. Loving thoughts

Mary Wickison from USA on November 14, 2016:

This is very interesting. Since moving to Brazil, I have become more interested in the close connection for beneficial plants to human health. My neighbors are a wealth of information about what to use for what ailment.

My father in law had celiac disease and it affects so many aspect of ones life to keep the condition in check.

Let's hope that the studies prove effective for human use.

Well written and informative article.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 14, 2016:

Thank you, Bill. I appreciate your visit and comment, as always.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 14, 2016:

I always learn so much about things I never would have known if not for you. Thank you for the continued education.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 14, 2016:

Thanks, AshutoshJoshio6. I'm hoping that the plant contributes more to humanity, too. It's a fascinating organism.

Ashutosh Joshi from New Delhi, India on November 14, 2016:

Great article, this plant truly is a masterpiece of evolution in plant kingdom. I think considering its survival instincts and complex dual metabolism there is much more that the plant would contribute towards in the near future

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 13, 2016:

Hi, Martie. Thanks for the comment. Pitcher plants are certainly interesting! I hope their role in treating celiac disease becomes a reality very soon.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on November 13, 2016:

Wow, this is amazing. I am in awe. Thanks, Alicia, for explaining how pitcher plants function, and how it can be used by humans to control celiac diseases.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 13, 2016:

Thank you, Flourish. I think it's wonderful when plants can help us with the treatment of disease. I hope we discover many more helpful chemicals in the plant kingdom.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 13, 2016:

Hi, Penny. Yes, it does seem that gluten problems are increasing, or at least the awareness of the problems. I hope the studies are successful, too. The results could be very important.

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 13, 2016:

Wow, even without the information on celiac disease and the role this plant may play in helping, this was a fascinating article. I've never heard of this type of plant. How interesting that potential help exists in our natural world.

Penny Leigh Sebring from Fort Collins on November 13, 2016:

What an amazing connection! I hope the studies prove fruitful; gluten allergies are still on the rise.

Related Articles