Earthworms produce granules of intricately zoned calcite

Martin R. Lee, Mark E. Hodson, Graham Langworthy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Earthworms of the family Lumbricidae, which includes many common species, produce and secrete up to millimeter-sized calcite granules, and the intricate fine-scale zoning of their constituent crystals is unique for a biomineral. Granule calcite is produced by crystallization of amorphous calcium carbonate (ACC) that initially precipitates within the earthworm calciferous glands, then forms protogranules by accretion on quartz grain cores. Crystallization of ACC is mediated by migrating fluid films and is largely complete within 24 11 of ACC production and before granules leave the earthworm. Variations in the density of defects formed as a byproduct of trace element incorporation during calcite crystall growth have generated zoning that can be resolved by cathodoluminescence imaging at ultraviolet to blue wavelengths and using the novel technique of scanning electron microscope charge contrast imaging. Mapping of calcite crystal orientations by electron backscatter diffraction reveals an approximate radial fabric to the granules that reflects crystal growth from internal nucleation sites toward their margins. The survival within granules of ACC inclusions for months after they enter soils indicates that they crystallize only within the earthworm and in the presence of fluids containing biochemical catalysts. The earthworm probably promotes crystallization of ACC in order to prevent remobilization of the calcium carbonate by dissolution. Calcite granules vividly illustrate the role of transient precursors in biomineralization, but the underlying question of why earth-worms produce granules in volumes sufficient to have a measurable impact on soil carbon cycling remains to be answered.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)943-946
Number of pages4
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2008

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