Jul
24
2007

When is a worm not a worm?

Squish it down, roll it out, and it becomes a worm: Photo NOAA.
Squish it down, roll it out, and it becomes a worm: Photo NOAA.

When it’s related to jellyfish. In 1851 scientists discovered an odd marine worm called Buddenbrockia. Unlike other worms, it has no internal organs. According to Oxford zoologist Peter Holland, “It has no mouth, no gut, no brain and no nerve cord. It doesn’t have a left or right side or a top or bottom – we can’t even tell which end is the front!”

No one knew where exactly if fit on the evolutionary tree. Until now. Holland studied the creatures DNA and found it is actually a close relative of jellyfish, sea anemones and coral.

Before you shrug your shoulders and say “so what?,” realize that Buddenbrockia is a parasite, and comes from a whole family of parasites. It devastates salmon fisheries, and has been hard to eradicate, since the fish farmers didn’t know what they were up against. Now we do.

Holland also notes that this research was made possible by the Human Genome Project, which decoded all the DNA in the human body. Not that human genes have anything much to do with jellyfish and worms. Rather, the Human Genome Project developed new, powerful ways to quickly study DNA. Those methods are now available to other researchers who could never have developed them on their own. In science, we call this the Trickle Down Effect.

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