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A Tropical Pitcher Plant and Enzymes for Gluten Digestion

Pitchers of Nepenthes ampullaria in Malaysia
Pitchers of Nepenthes ampullaria in Malaysia | Source

A Pitcher Plant and Gluten Digestion in Humans

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.

There are many different types of pitcher plants. 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 may be able to digest gluten in the acidic conditions of a patient's stomach, preventing the protein from entering and damaging the small intestine.

Ground pitchers are joined to the main part of the plant (shown at the bottom of the photo) by underground rhizomes.
Ground pitchers are joined to the main part of the plant (shown at the bottom of the photo) by underground rhizomes. | Source

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 and also absorb nutrients from the soil. The soil in which they grow is poor in nitrogen, however. This element is needed to make DNA, RNA (which is necessary in order for DNA to perform its job) and proteins. DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, contains the genes of an organism.

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

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. | Source

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 and Other Species in a Plant Nursery

Nepenthes ampullaria can be bought in some plant nurseries and kept as a cultivated plant.

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. Some of them have a tendril at their tip. The lower leaves are borne in rosettes while the upper ones are spread out. The plant becomes woody as it matures.

The plant bears 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 | Source

Pitchers

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.

An aerial pitcher is attached to a tendril that extends from the tip of a leaf's midrib. The plant also produces a cluster of pitchers that spread over the ground and are referred to as terrestrial or basal pitchers. These pitchers are produced by an underground stem known as a rhizome.

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.

Aerial pitchers
Aerial pitchers | Source

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.

What Is 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 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.

The treatment for the disease is to eliminate gluten from the diet. This generally allows the villi to regenerate and symptoms to disappear. As described below, however, it's a challenge to follow a truly gluten-free diet. This is one reason why the search for suitable digestive enzymes is important.

Celiac Disease Explained for Adults and Children

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—the gliadins and the 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. | Source

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 elimate 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.

Corn contains no gluten.
Corn contains no gluten. | Source

Potential Problems With 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. | Source

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 hydrid 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.

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

Nepenthes Ampullaria Pitcher Development

Further Research

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 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.

The use of nepenthesin and neprosin could eventually make food choices much easier for people with celiac disease. It would be interesting to know whether other enzymes from pitcher plants have benefits for us.

Reference

Enzymes From a Carnivorous Plant Can Digest Gluten: A press release from the University of Calgary with links to the original research reports

© 2016 Linda Crampton

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Comments 36 comments

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 11 hours ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


Peggy Woods 14 hours ago

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!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 days ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


vocalcoach 3 days ago

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.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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.


aesta1 profile image

aesta1 2 weeks ago from Ontario, Canada

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.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


MsDora profile image

MsDora 2 weeks ago from The Caribbean

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.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 3 weeks ago from San Diego California

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 3 weeks ago from California

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


DDE profile image

DDE 3 weeks ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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.


Vellur profile image

Vellur 3 weeks ago from Dubai

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.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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!


BlossomSB profile image

BlossomSB 3 weeks ago from Victoria, Australia

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.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, Larry. I always appreciate your visits.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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 profile image

Larry Rankin 3 weeks ago from Oklahoma

Cool read as always:-)


RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 3 weeks ago from the short journey

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.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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 profile image

manatita44 3 weeks ago from london

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


Blond Logic profile image

Blond Logic 3 weeks ago from Brazil

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.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


AshutoshJoshi06 profile image

AshutoshJoshi06 3 weeks ago from New Delhi, India

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 3 weeks ago from South Africa

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.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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 profile image

FlourishAnyway 3 weeks ago from USA

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 Sebring profile image

Penny Sebring 3 weeks ago from Fort Collins

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

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