Earthworms that have evolved to thrive in contaminated soils may be able to help human beings clean up polluted industrial sites.
British scientists believe that earthworms have been forced into rapid evolutionary change in abandoned mines; these "super worms" are able to live in soil that is heavily laced with toxic heavy metals like arsenic, lead, zinc and cesium.
"A combination of laboratory, field and synchrotron X-ray experiments have led to the finding that metal-tolerant populations of super earthworms are evolving," said Mark Hodson of the University of Reading.
Since earthworms consume up to thirty times their weight each day, the evolved super worms may be able to perform amazing toxic cleanup feats.
SF fans are unsurprised by this development, having had their consciousnesses expanded by the original Star Trek episode The Devil in the Dark (first aired 09-Mar-1967).
In the course of the episode, the Enterprise crew discovers the existence of the horta, a cheerful race of tunneling creatures who are happy to assist Federation entrepreneurs looking for precious metals. The horta make their own tunnels, eating their way through the planet's interior.
(The song of the Horta - no, really)
Perhaps a closer match would be Larry Niven's mining worms, which eat their way through ore and then leave metal droppings. Which makes me wonder if these earthworms are supposed to absorb the toxic metals into their bodies, in which case you're going to be left with a toxic worm disposal problem. But at least you've got more of the metals in one place than you did before.