Let This Awesome Science Infect Your Mind

Ed Yong is one of the finest science writers in the world. His National Geographic blog is chock full of the weird, wild, and WTF-inducing stories that make our living world so darn interesting. So I was overjoyed when I heard he would be speaking at this year’s TED.

He didn’t disappoint. In his talk above, he unlocks the under-appreciated and often cringe-worthy world of mind-controlling parasites. They get no respect, I tell ya, no respect at all. Yet they are cornerstones of countless ecosystems, determining food availability and managing population sizes like armies of freaky fauna, each deployed in a Trojan Horse of evolution’s design. Every parasite’s life is a story, by definition, an elaborate chain that extends from host to host, and I think they’ve found their minstrel in Ed. I mean that as a compliment, of course.

Listen to him weave a tapestry of tapeworms, explain what makes flamingos munch on zombie shrimp, show you how a cricket is like a TARDIS, how a wasp turns a cockroach into a cocker spaniel, and how a brain-controlling protozoan reminds him of an Elizabeth Gilbert novel. My favorite part of this? The idea that ideas themselves may be parasites.

I haven’t loved a TED talk this much in a long time. Or maybe that’s just the parasite talking. 


How does your body take down parasites?

This 11-second time-lapse video shows white blood cells attacking a parasitic worm (actual time: 80 minutes). The video was originally published alongside UCSF research in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.


The Second Disease Ever Eradicated

Only 126 cases of Guinea worm remain before the parasite disappears from humanity entirely.

For the past 30 years, Jimmy Carter has waged war on the Guinea worm, a parasite that infects people who drink water contaminated with its larvae. Carter’s first encounter with the worm was in the late 1980s during a trip to a small village in Ghana, where more than two-thirds of inhabitants were infected.

“I saw a young woman holding a baby in her arms … But it was not a baby—It was her right breast,” he said to a group of reporters. “It was [swollen to] about a foot long. And coming out of the nipple of her breast was a Guinea worm.” Carter would later discover that the woman had 11 worms in her body. This event, which he called one of the most unforgettable scenes of human suffering he had ever seen, inspired him to create a new mission for his Carter Center foundation: The complete eradication of Guinea worm disease.

In 1986, cases of Guinea worm disease numbered more than 3.5 million worldwide. Now, globally, there are only 126 cases left, Carter announced this week during the unveiling of a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, called Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease. The exhibit showcases “neglected tropical diseases” such as Guinea worm, river blindness, and polio, which have disappeared from wealthy nations but still plague the developing world. Though most of the Western world has averted its attention from the scourges, Carter said that these diseases are prime for eradication, and his foundation is on track to make Guinea worm the second human disease after smallpox to be entirely eliminated worldwide.

The disease was endemic in an estimated 23,735 villages across 21 Asian and African countries like Ghana, India, Pakistan and Yemen in 1991. Now, only 30 villages in four countries—Mali, Chad, Ethiopia, and South Sudan—harbor the worms. The feat comes from decades of public-health intervention. Once inside a human host, the Guinea larva develops into a long, pale worm within a year. Then, over the course of 30 days, it emerges from the infected person’s skin through painful, swollen welts. “Imagine a worm one meter long coming out of your skin for, on average, 11 weeks. That in itself is a nightmare to me,” Craig Withers, a program director at the Carter Center, said at the event. “It’s sort of like ‘Alien’ in real life.” It’s also common for people to suffer from more than one infection, Withers said, adding that the worms can manifest in any part of the body. “Use your worst imagination: Roof of the mouth, breast, the head, scrotum. Any area, it can come out,” Withers said. Afflicted people often immerse themselves in a watering hole in an attempt to wash the worm out of their bodies, but this allows the worm to lay its eggs and start the cycle anew. 

read more 


The Worm Wagon

The top image in this trio shows a close up of an adult Trichuris muris, a whipworm parasite. Here the worm is seen under an electron microscope but more commonly this type of worm is seen taking residence in the large intestine of its host. 

In the second image you can see illustrations of Schistosoma mansoni by Paul Evans © 2012. This parasite lives in the blood and lays thousands of eggs which result in tissue damage and even death.

BBSRC-funded Sheena Cruickshank (centre of picture) and Professor Kathryn Else (right), are lecturers at The University of Manchester who specialise in studying parasites. Both are co-founders, with Dr Jo Pennock (left), of the outreach activity called The Worm Wagon: an exhibition that is part of the BBSRC’s 20th Anniversary Festival. This exhibit will focus on explaining how people catch infections and the global significance of these infections.

When not on The Worm Wagon their day to day research tries to understand the biology and immunology of parasite infection. Part of Sheena’s research is finding markers we can use to help diagnose patients who respond badly to infection and those who don’t. Professor Else concentrates more on vaccine research and how the damage caused by infection is regulated.

This research is vital considering the biggest killer of people under 50 is infection.

Images of Trichuris muris from Uta Rossler, Richard Grencis and Toby Starborg FLS, UoM.

Image of researchers by Mark Waugh, UoM.

For more bioscience news visit our facebook Oh and don’t forget to like it! 

Winning the Poo

Researchers at the University of Melbourne recently announced that they had sequenced the genome of Toxocara canis, which might not seem like significant news – scientists seem to sequencing a lot of genomes these days – but this particular feat merits a special hip-hip-poo-ray!

T. canis is a roundworm that causes disease in both humans and animals. Most at risk (brace yourself): Young children and puppies.

The parasitical worm, which can grow to roughly six inches, resides in the guts of dogs and other mammals. Untreated, the worm’s numbers can eventually pack the entire small intestine. Adult dogs can become very sick; for puppies, it can be fatal.

Young children are at risk because the parasite’s eggs (that’s a hatching worm depicted above) are excreted in fecal material, where they may be either inadvertently consumed or contaminate ingested foods. Interestingly, studies have shown that owning a pet does not seem to significantly increase the risk of T. canis infections, which suggests most of the risk comes from eggs already present in the environment.

T. canis eggs are not immediately infective after being passed by an animal, and they take a few weeks to develop. The eggs may linger in situ well after animal waste has been washed away naturally, which means an area that appears clear may actually remain contaminated.

Here are some tips to reduce risk:

  • Wash hands thoroughly after gardening or playing outside
  • Discourage young children from putting soil or dirty hands in their mouths
  • Cook meat thoroughly (the larval form of the parasite can infect tissues)
  • Deworm cats and dogs regularly to reduce potential infections
  • Pick up animal stool quickly, within 24 hours, before the eggs become infective

The sequencing of T. canis offers no immediate remedies, but the new knowledge could lead to new treatments and vaccines, said researchers. “This pathogen causes widespread outbreaks, predominantly in underprivileged communities and developing countries, so the more we know about these parasites the better equipped we are to combat their deadly effects,” said study author Robin Gasser.

Are parasites controlling your brain?

The answer is probably, maybe yes. These creepy organisms have some killer tactics, and we learned some of their secrets from NatGeo blogger Ed Yong at TED2014. It was pretty much our favorite thing ever.

Here, an awfully unsavory look at the fascinating world of parasites »

Victim I: Colorful brine shrimp

This brine shrimp (better known as a sea monkey) is prone to the powerful scheming of a parasitic tapeworm. The tapeworm hijacks the shrimp’s body, castrates it, drains it of nutrients, and turns its body bright red. You know, normal parasite stuff.


To get to a flamingo, of course. Flamingos spot (and eat) these bright red shrimp easily, and as you’ve surely guessed, these tapeworms can only reproduce inside a pink flamingo. Ah, romance.

Victim II: Zombie crickets

This poor, poor cricket is about to fall prey to a Gordian worm that’s hiding away in its body.

When the worm has had enough of its host, it’ll turn the cricket into a zombie and force it to drown in the nearest body of water. Then the giant worm will wriggle out and reproduce in the perfect watery conditions. Real charming way to thank a host.

Victim III: Us???

There’s a whole world of mind-controlling parasites — fungi, viruses and insects that manipulate their hosts. So…are there menacing parasites controlling our actions too?

"Given the widespread nature of such manipulations," says Yong in his talk, “it would be completely implausible for humans to be the only species that weren’t similarly affected.”

To which we say:

Watch the full talk here »


Photo one: The female Ascaris lumbricoides lays up to 200,000 eggs per day. CDC estimates 807 to 1221 million people are infected with Ascaris worldwide.
Credit: Eye of Science / Science Source Photo two: The “heartworm” Dirofilaria immitis is a type of roundworm that spreads through mosquito bites. Credit: Eye of Science / Science Source Gefällt mir

photo three: Called the “dog roundworm,” Toxocara canis primarily infects dogs and other canids. Fully grown, these worms measure anywhere from 9 to 18 cm.

Credit: Eye of Science / Science Source photo four: Necator americanus attaches itself to the villi of the small intestine to feast on a host’s blood, causing abdominal pain, diarrhea, and weight loss. Credit: David Scharf / Science Source source News from Science

The Rhizocephalan Barnacle is an anomaly in nature possessing some of the most repulsive and sadistic behaviours in existence rivalling the worst of fictional monsters! With the ability to perform mind-control and induce vegetative (but still living) state on its host.

The  larvae do not settle on rocks like other species, Instead, the females settle on other crustaceans, typically crabs. (usually on the gills, where the crab’s exoskeleton is thinnest)

After this the larvae begins to inject its innards into the crab, this is usually done by its hypodermic needle like antennae.  

The barnacle then beings to grow inside the hosts fluid-filled cavities and branching out through the entirety of its body (but focusing on the digestive track) even infiltrating its nervous systems. It has a mechanism that enables it to avoid being attacked by the hosts immune system.

Once the now mature Rhizocephalan has taken over the host it beings to secrete pheromones to attract male larvae. The male then injects themselves in the host aswell and fuses with the female, the eggs are fertilized and released and the cycle begins again.

The host species generally stores its eggs under a tail flap (such as the crab) Some species of Rhizocephalans actually chemically castrate the crab, and then perform “mind control” compelling the host to take care of the parasites eggs as if it were their own! This is so powerful that it even works in males who lack the reproductive structures and behaviours need for this.

The host will never grow, molt, produce offspring or be in-control over its own actions for the rest of its life. It will spend the remainder of its existence in a zombie like state eating food that will then be sucked out of its digestive tract by the parasite!

Bacteria Turn Plants and Insects into Zombies

Parasites can turn plants into zombies and a team of scientists from the John Innes Center in Norwich, UK, has now discovered how they do it.

When plants are infected by parasitic bacteria called phytoplasmas, their flowers turn into leafy shoots, their petals turn green and they develop a mass of shoots called ‘witches’ brooms’. This transformation sterilizes the plant, while attracting the sap-sucking insects that carry the bacteria to new hosts.

“The plant appears alive, but it’s only there for the good of the pathogen,” says plant pathologist Saskia Hogenhout from the John Innes Center in Norwich, UK. “In an evolutionary sense, the plant is dead and will not produce offspring.”

“Many might baulk at the concept of a zombie plant because the idea of plants behaving is strange,” says David Hughes, a parasitologist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. “But they do, and since they do, why wouldn’t parasites have evolved to take over their behavior, as they do for ants and crickets?”

Flowers of Madagascar rosy periwinkle infected by a bacterium produce leaf-like petals and attract a leafhopper that serves as the pathogen’s next vector.

When insect taxonomist Chris Carlton of Louisiana State University went on a collecting trip in Belize, he did what many travelers do: He picked up a souvenir. It was even free, which was pretty sweet. After spending a month in Central America, he returned home and unwrapped his gift to himself.

Unfortunately, the unwrapping happened on the top of his noggin. Carlton’s scalp had become home to a human botfly larva, a spiny parasitic maggot that digs into living human flesh, feeds on the inflamed tissue surrounding it, and grows to more than an inch long.

“I began to notice a sort of discomfort exactly in the very top of my head,” Carlton told WIRED, recalling his horrifying experience in 1997, “and I didn’t think much of it.” He’d known about botflies, what with being an entomologist and all. But he didn’t draw the connection until an intense pain hit him every 15 to 20 minutes. That’s when he remembered that when the larvae reach a certain size, they “rotate in their little burrows in your skin, and this creates this sort of intense shooting periodic pain. So at that point the typical reaction is that you know you have a maggot in your body, and you must get it out.”

[MORE: Absurd Creature of the Week - Burrowing Botfly Grows Huge Feasting on Your Flesh]

These blue-nose-caterpillars (Acharia ophelians) have been parasitized by a species of braconid wasp that lays its eggs inside them. The wasps will first hatch into larvae and fed on the muscle tissues, while leaving the heart and other essential organs intact. Afterwards, the larvae will eat their way out from the caterpillars skin and built the silken cocoons within which they will metamorphose into adult wasps that will fly off to start the cycle again using other caterpillar.

Photo: Susana García Blanco 

via Biologia-Vida naturephotography

sourced through SI

Parasite eggs from the Celtic period found

Archaeologists from the University of Basel discovered eggs of intestinal parasites in samples from the former Celtic settlement ‘Basel-Gasfabrik,’ and concluded that its population lived in poor sanitary conditions. Using special geoarchaeological methods, they found three different types of parasites, as reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

As part of an international project, researchers at the Integrative Prehistory and Archaeological Science center (IPAS) at the University of Basel examined samples from the “Basel-Gasfabrik” Celtic settlement, at the present day site of Novartis. The settlement was inhabited around 100 B.C. and is one of the most significant Celtic sites in Central Europe. The team found the durable eggs of roundworms (Ascaris sp.), whipworms, (Trichuris sp.) and liver flukes (Fasciola sp.). The eggs of these intestinal parasites were discovered in the backfill of 2000 year-old storage and cellar pits from the Iron Age. Read more.


Tiny Arachnids Do Indeed Live On Your Face, Scientists Say

Talk about creepy! You may think your morning shower did its job, but odds are a bunch of microscopic mites are crawling on your face and living in your pores at this very moment.

In fact, new research suggests that a specific genus of these tiny parasitic creatures called Demodex are way more common on the faces of human adults than previously thought. Just check out the video above to see one of the little critters in action.”

Learn more from the huffingtonpost.