Not exactly the most profound question I’d asked myself all year, or even all day; however, as I was bringing my load of organic, chemical-free, artisanal worm food over to the nice lady with spiky blond hair at the Union Square compost dropoff facility, the thought did occur to me. I’d just made a fantastic Oaxacan dish of ground beef, cabbage, cilantro, and a few hot peppers, and in my bag of vegetable scraps lurked a couple of morsels that’d pop a capsicum in your ass. Would the worms go for them? And if they did, would they be leaving a trail of fire?
I knew I couldn’t answer the questions myself. I immediately thought of Chris Patil, who wrote the Science Bug column in our college paper. There were lots of Science Bugs; the title was passed down every so often as Science Bugs left, kind of like actors playing James Bond, and Chris was Sean Connery. His explanation of why the moon appears smaller when it’s high in the sky than when it’s close to the horizon is the stuff of legend – equal parts informative and humorous, using, among other things, the child’s game where you look at someone else between your own thumb and index finger, held up near your eye, and say “SQUISH! SQUISH! I’M SQUISHING YOUR HEAD!” to demonstrate his point. And nearly twenty years later, I still remember why that happens with the moon. I knew he was the man for the job.
Trouble is, he’s been retired since 1994, when he swore off the Science Bug game forever. I was able to track him down and called him into my office. He was wearing an eye patch.*
Portable Chef: You go in, write the column, bring it here in less than 24 hours, and you’re a free man.
Portable Chef: I’m making you an offer.
Chris: Get a new Science Bug.
(There is a pregnant pause as Cronenberg, one of the Portable Chef’s minions, shoots Portable Chef a nervous glance)
Cronenberg: Tell him.
Chris: Tell me what? What did you do to me, asshole?
Portable Chef: Something we’ve been fooling around with. Two microscopic capsules have been injected into your neck at the base of your two main arteries. They’re already starting to dissolve. In 22 hours, they’ll be dissolved down to the cores. At the core of each capsule is a small heat-sensing charge that will detonate. Not a big explosion, about the size of a pinhead, just enough to pop open both of your arteries. I estimate that you’ll be dead in 10 to 20 seconds from internal bleeding…
Chris: [chokes Portable Chef] Take them out, now!
Cronenberg: They’re protected by the cores. Fifteen minutes before the last hour is up, we can neutralize the charge with X-rays.
Portable Chef: We’ll burn out the charges IF you have the Science Bug column.
Chris: What if I’m a little late?
Portable Chef: No more Hartford Summit. And no more Chris Patil.
Chris: Call me Snake.
*(Or maybe he wasn’t wearing an eye patch. In fact, this whole conversation might have actually happened, or I might just have fallen asleep last night watching Escape From New York while eating yogurt spiked with the infamous hallucinogenic honey made by the bees of the mountains of Sapa in Vietnam. Who’s to say? The important thing here is that he agreed to write the column).
21 hours and 45 minutes later, the following report landed on my desk:
The short answer is that worms probably don’t feel the burn.
Our response to spicy-hot flavors isn’t a property of the flavor molecules themselves, but of our own tongues (and, as we’ve all noted at least once to our intense chagrin, our delicate mucous membranes elsewhere in the body).
There are proteins on the cells of the tongue (and elsewhere) called “receptors”. Receptors bind to small molecules, and communicate with the interior of a cell. If enough receptors are binding to flavor molecules, the cell will send a signal that is eventually picked up by a nerve.
(Digression: The nerve sends this signal on to the brain, where we say e.g. “Mmmm…salty” or “Eew, sour.” The flavor we experience has little to do with the molecule that started the cascade — e.g., salt or acetic acid — and everything to do with where in the brain the nerve in question is wired. So one could imagine playing tricks like getting a “sour”-wired taste bud to festoon itself with “salty” receptors, and then exposing the tongue to salt. The lucky guinea pig in this experiment would experience, you guessed it, sour tastes in response to salty stimuli. End digression.)
Worms have receptors for a variety of different odorants (for a worm, taste and smell are basically the same sense). They use these receptors (and the attached neuronal architecture) to seek out food (“crawl toward yummy smell”) and avoid toxins (“crawl away from noxious odor”). So the question about whether a worm gets a burny poo comes down to (1) whether the worm would interpret capsaicin (the “hot”/Scoville-icious molecule in jalapeños and other peppers) as a stimulus worth pursuing — i.e., would they eat it in the first place — and (2) whether or not the worm would experience pain as a consequence of eating and then excreting capsaicin-containing foods. (I’m glossing over the question of whether the worm has receptors specifically in the “poo” areas of its digestive tract).
Here’s what I could dig up (get it?): Worms don’t seem to be able to sense capsaicin at all. They have a receptor (osm-9) that’s related to the mammalian capsaicin receptor (VR-1), but it doesn’t seem to respond to spicy-hot stimuli. No receptor, no sensation, no burny poo.
(Geneticists are confident enough that worms don’t sense capsaicin that they use this fact to set up a trick like the one I described in the Digression: they engineer worms that express VR-1 only in specific neurons. Since no other worm neuron has a receptor for capsaicin, they can “turn on” those individual neurons by adding a bit of capsaicin to the petri dish. No lie.)
Qualification: The study wasn’t done on Red Wrigglers of the sort used in vermicomposting. Instead, the researchers used a very small nematode roundworm (Caenorhabditis elegans, for worm aficionados) that is almost as evolutionarily distant from annelids (segmented earthworms) as we are. So it’s possible that garden worms actually do have capsaicin receptors.
Happily, this isn’t a hard issue to resolve experimentally. If you have a vermicomposting box already set up, you could simply take some compostable material, split it in two, and mix some cayenne or jalapeño into one of the two halves. Place each half at opposite corners of the box, and check to see where the worms go. Chances are that if capsaicin is detected at all, and the stimulus is interpreted as painful, the worms will tend to favor the “no pepper” control. If they can’t tell the difference, they’ll be equally distributed between the two corners. (There are a host of assumptions built into this experiment. Two of the important ones are that the worms don’t enjoy pain, and that there’s not something in the jalapeño or cayenne that would attract them regardless of the discomfort.)
There you have it. Remember, kids: If you’re manipulating cayenne or hot peppers in the home kitchen, remember to wash thoroughly with soap and water before putting in contacts, urinating, or finger-banging your neighbor’s girlfriend.
This much is clear: the Science Bug’s still got it. Thorough, funny, and chock full of information – I had no idea that I was no further evolutionarily from a worm as, well, another type of worm. I really was no closer to a definitive answer than I had been before reading the report, though. To really get to the bottom of this, I’d have to do the experiment. And I was psyched to see composting in action.
The benefits of composting are clear: my waste products become valuable fertile soil, rich not only in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus (the elements required to support plant growth), but also rich in organic matter that helps the soil hold water, deliver nutrients, and prevent erosion.
If you have a garden, composting obviates the need to buy fertilizer, which is a good thing because buying fertilizer means that either (a) you’re buying a chemical wonder made out of petroleum, which is crappy for the environment and also not the most appetizing thing to put in your tomato garden, or (b) you’re paying good money for what is literally a bag of shit.
If you just toss your table scraps along with your regular trash, the compostable material that you throw in the garbage simply won’t compost – the oxygen-depleted environment of a landfill means your table scraps will decompose extremely slowly; the discarded electronics sharing the landfill with your food scraps means that whatever’s in the landfill will get contaminated with mercury, lead, and a host of other nasty chemicals that will render it forever unfit for human use. In short: you can either throw your food scraps in the garbage and then go and buy fertilizer, shafting the environment on both ends of that deal, or you can transform your garbage into something worthwhile. I’ve always liked the idea of composting; there’s something magical about it. The thought of turning my apple cores into, say, a delicious tomato makes me feel like Rumpelstiltskin. Except taller. And more benevolent.
I don’t do any actual composting at home, though. First, I live a short walk from Union Square, which accepts compost every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday; second, I have no plants in need of fertilized soil; and third, the idea of actually doing the compositng in my apartment had always seemed, well… a little gross. Sure, the end result is beautiful soil, but the process? I pictured something along the lines of this.
Turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong. I had the good fortune to meet Iris Chau and Alastair Ong, a midtown-dwelling couple that composted at home and was willing to indulge me. They showed me their composter, a Worm Factory 360. It is modern-looking, clean, and completely odorless.
The system is ingenious. It consists of several vertically-stacked trays, and allows the worms to travel between them; as you add more compost to the top, worms finish doing their business down below and climb up to the next level, kind of like Donkey Kong, if you can imagine you as the gorilla, the table scraps as barrels, and the worms as ten thousand wriggling Marios doing their thing down below. Analogies like that make you wonder why I never got laid in high school.
One of the best parts of this particular system is that as the worms leave the lower trays for higher ground, the bottom trays can be removed and the compost within is ready to go – no need to separate worms from compost, as they’ve already gone on to their next meal up above. No muss, no fuss.
I had also been worried that the worms would somehow find their way out of the box, a fear which dissipated as soon as Alastair showed me the Worm Factory.
It’s not as though the thing is escape-proof; I’m sure there’s a way out. It’s a matter of incentives. A composter is, quite simply, worm heaven. Would Charlie Sheen leave a room if you filled it full of high-priced hookers and stuck him in there with an ATM? Of course not. Not ever. Not even if you left the exit door wide open. Same thing here.
I’d prepped two servings of boiled millet and spiced one batch with a healthy dose of cayenne pepper. We put one pile in each corner and let ’em go to work. I thought there would probably be no difference. Chris, possessing far more knowledge about the science than I, came to the same conclusion. Alastair, a seasoned composter, thought the same. The worms might pick the plain food, we all thought, but it would be a real, Douglas vs. Tyson-esque longshot.
What did happen was even more shocking: the worms liked the spicy food more! By Day 6 the worms were all over the cayenne, attacking it with Kirstie Alley-esque gusto. The plain millet was relatively untouched. Only after Day 9, when every last shred of cajun spice was gone, did the worms turn their attention to the control sample.
I wasn’t sure how to react. Had we turned the science world on its ear with this discovery? Well, probably not. But we had ruled out our predicted result – that the worms wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
There were still questions. Were the worms showing a taste preference for the spicy millet and having no, um, back-end repercussions? Was it a question of ignorance – ie, they liked the spicy food and simply went for it, unaware of the high-temp havoc it would wreak on their digestive system later on?
Or did they know full well what they were getting into – and were they actually relishing the hot poo that was to come? Was that an essential part of their preference?
Aha, I thought, pondering this last hypothesis while tucking into a green curry. These little worms are evolutionarily closer to me than I had realized.