Stories tagged worms

Feb
17
2010

What is it?: It's... ah... you know, whatever.
What is it?: It's... ah... you know, whatever.Courtesy Reytan
Roll up your sleeves and prepare a glass of filtered water, Buzzketeers, because it’s time to learn about the Guinea worm. It’s time to learn about the Guinea worm… hard!

In case the title of this post didn’t spoil it for you already, or if your mother printed out the page but cut off the title, or in case your eyes just don’t read letters that big, the Guinea worm grows to be up to three feet long. Inside you. And even though everything that enters my body must first pass through flame, it still freaks me out.

The parasitic guinea worm, or dracunculiasis (which means “afflicted with little dragons”—you’ll see why in a second), was once found in 20 countries across Asia and Africa, but improved sanitary conditions have reduced its range to just 4 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Which is cool, because the Guinea worm is super gross and bad, but not good enough, because the Guinea worm is super gross and bad.

The worm works like this: little worm larvae swim around in puddles and ponds until they get eaten by teeny, tiny crustaceans called copepods (sort of like little shrimp). They live and grow inside the copepods until the copepods get swallowed by people drinking unfiltered water. (Just to be clear, this isn’t just any unfiltered water. If you’ve got electricity to power a computer to read this, there’s pretty much zero chance that there are any worm-carrying copepods in your water. If it came from a tap and not a puddle, you’re probably cool. And even if it came from a puddle, you’re probably still cool.) The copepods get dissolved in the drinkers’ stomach acid, but not the baby worms, which then move from the stomach to the abdominal cavity. There, the worms mate. The male worms die and get absorbed, but the female worms wriggle their way deeper into the body, and grow. And grow and grow. Until they’re about three feet long. They live inside their human host for a year, and then they form a blister somewhere on the surface of the person’s body. When the blister bursts, the female worm emerges just a little bit. The worm releases chemicals that cause the blister to have a very painful burning sensation, and when the host puts the affected area in water to cool it, the worm releases hundreds of thousands of worm larvae into the water, where the cycle can begin again.

As if that whole experience weren’t uncomfortable enough, the treatment isn’t a whole lot better. Because there’s no medicine for Guinea worm infection, the adult worm itself must be removed. The way to do that is to grab the exposed bit of the worm and wrap it around a twig or a piece of cloth, and then twisting the twig. But it has to be done slooooowly so as to not break the worm while it’s still inside your muscles—the process, which is said to be extremely painful, can take up to a month before the worm is fully removed. It’s thought that the ancient symbol for medicine, a snake wrapped around a rod may have been inspired by this procedure.

So, you know… ouch, blech, ouch.

Becoming infected once confers no protection from getting infected again, so people can get Guinea worms over and over again, and in addition to being painful, the blister the worm creates can make the sufferer vulnerable to more dangerous infections.

The good news is that preventing infection is relatively simple; infected people shouldn’t wash in water that will be used for drinking, and simple filters can keep people from ingesting the copepods that carry the worm larvae.

President Jimmy “Billy who?” Carter’s non-profit organization, The Carter Center, has been working for the last 20 years to eradicate the parasite. Despite some pretty significant barriers, it is expected that dracunculialisis will be the second disease, after smallpox, to be completely eradicated through human efforts. (Here’s a recent article on that.)

From what I’ve read (and what the Carter Center says), it looks like humans are the Guinea worm’s only host. So it seems to me that eradicating the infection would cause the extinction of the species. Think about that for a second. Usually sciencey types are pretty much completely against driving other organisms to extinction. But it seems like this one… considering how it pretty much only makes life worse for people who are already dealing with some serious challenges… should maybe… maybe… go extinct? I mean, obviously, right? But try that one on for size; I bet you haven’t often said to yourself that you’re cool with something going extinct. It’s a strange experience.

(If you just can’t deal with it, Here’s a website devoted to saving the Guinea worm. It’s satire, but subtle enough that you could probably play along. But, um, remember that sometimes the Guinea worm emerges from the eyes or genitals of its host. Just saying.)

Mar
20
2009

Another giant worm: This is as friendly as they get.
Another giant worm: This is as friendly as they get.Courtesy Santheo
OMG! Friday already? Where did the week go? You know how it is: it’s Sunday, and you’re testing items in your refrigerator for freshness… and the next thing you know, it’s Friday, and you’re lying on the floor in front of the fridge! It makes one wonder if he should seriously reevaluate his life.

What’s worse (worst!) is that I almost missed a Friday Extravaganza. Think about the repercussions—I could be rereading my own posts some time in the future, and I would wonder why I skipped an extravaganza. Did I just get bored with them? Was something wrong at the time? A personal crisis? I wouldn’t know what happened! I don’t want that. So an extravaganza…

It works out pretty well actually, because the first think I thought when I lifted my head off the floor and looked into the open refrigerator was, “worms.” And this week just happened to be a slightly wormy week in the news. A slightly giant-wormy week.

Check it out, y’all: Giant sand worms!

Apparently, back in olden times (the Permian period, before the dinosaurs), there used to be 3-foot-long, six-inch wide worms! The reason we don’t have cool giant worm skeletons in our museums, of course, is that worms don’t have skeletons. And all that soft, wormy tissue doesn’t fossilize very well at all. (That’s why it’s such a big deal when we find ”mummified” dinosaurs too—soft tissue almost always rots before it can fossilize.) Short of the rare cases where soft tissue does fossilize, there are other ways to find evidence of soft, extinct animals. In this case, paleontologists found the worm’s fossilized burrow. How about that?

The articles I found didn’t provide a lot of details about the worm, except that it was big, lived underground (and underground worm?!? What?!) in part of what is now England, and it’s a completely new species. Giant arthropods (like huge millipedes) had been known to live millions of years ago, but nothing like this huge worm.

Three-foot worms… yuckers. Good thing we don’t have anything like that around today, am I right?

Wrong!! Wrong wrong wrong! This is an EXTRAVAGANZA, y’all, and would never stop with just one worm during an extravaganza! So put this in your brain and shake it: There are giant worms alive today, and they’re way, way worse than you think!

Look.

See, I would have gone on living without knowing about the giant worms among us, if I hadn’t seen this little article about how a creature wreaking havoc on a British aquarium. (It’s a Friday Giant British Worm Extravaganza, I guess.) Something was chewing apart the coral in the aquarium, and devouring its fish. The aquarium staffers tried to trap the culprit, and to fish it out with bait. The traps, however, were torn apart overnight, and the baited fishing line was bitten through. In the end, they resorted to dismantling the artificial reef. Underneath all the rocks, they found a four-foot-long reef worm!

Whoa! Four feet? That beats the prehistoric worm even!

But, come on now… we humans are prone to exaggeration. The worm couldn’t be that impressive right?

No. Wrong.

I couldn’t find anything about “giant sea worms,” but searching for “reef worm” brought up the term “bristle worm.” And “bristle worm” makes sense, because the article described the worm as having bizarre-looking jaws, and thousands of bristles, each of which are able to inflict a sting that results in “permanent numbness.”

Then I found this page, which informed me that bristle worms are complex creatures, with “two to four pairs of eyes, sensory organs, a mouth, and a brain.” (I’ll let you know right now—I don’t approve of worms having brains.) And, yes, they have bristles, which can inflict extremely painful stings. The article doesn’t say anything about the bristles being poisonous, but posits that the painful sting could be caused by calcium carbonate or silica from the bristles. This page confirmed that the worms can hitch rides on rocks into aquariums, where they grown quickly, and can become a nuisance (to say the least, I guess).

Wikipedia was the next step, of course. Wikipedia teaches us that the worms will wait buried in sand or gravel until prey swims along. The worm will then attack with such speed that the prey is sometimes sliced in half by its claws/jaws. And while an average size for the worm is about 3 feet, they have been known to grow up to nine-feet-long!

What? What kind of world is this?

Also… this particular type of bristle worm is referred to as a “Bobbit worm.” What’s that all about? I’ll tell you: according to this site, at least, Bobbit worms are so nicknamed for the fact that, after mating, female worms will often “attacks the male’s penis and feeds it to her young.” That’s right, you remember now: Bobbit.

(It occurs to me that the timing in this anecdote is a little off—exactly how would you feed the penis to your young immediately after mating? But whatever.)

Oh, man. Worm extravaganza.

See? See the Bobbit worm?

Sure, it’s fish now. Next time it could be (will be) you. Happy weekend.

Sep
17
2008

Eat up!: Technically, these aren't the right kind of parasitic worms. But it couldn't hurt to have a few, right?
Eat up!: Technically, these aren't the right kind of parasitic worms. But it couldn't hurt to have a few, right?Courtesy Teseum
Finally, folks, we have yet another reason to get infected with parasitic worms!

Don’t get me wrong—there are already reasons that you should look into getting worms, plenty of reasons. The company, for one; you’re never alone when you’ve got worms, after all. And the excuse that you’re eating for two (or two hundred) is always useful at big dinners. And the day that “Hey, I have worms! Let’s kiss!” stops being an effective icebreaker at parties is the day I’m not interested in living any more.

And yet there will always be naysayers. Killjoys and health nuts, for whom no pro-worm argument seems to be adequate. Hey, worm-haters, guess who had worms. Your great grandparents, probably, and were they bad people?

In any case, the obstinate will soon have an even harder time ignoring the cold, hard face of reason.

It has been observed that in tropical regions where infection by a particular type of parasitic worm is common, auto-immune diseases—like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and type-1 diabetes—are particularly uncommon. Scientsts, clever devils that they are, have figured out why this is.

Certains type of parasitic nematodes (nematodes are round worms) are capable of causing filariasis in their hosts. Among other things, filariasis causes elephantiasis. Elephantiasis for those of you blocking out memories, elephantiasis (often misheard as “elephantitis”) is characterized by severe “thickening of the skin and underlying tissues,” occurring most often in the legs and genitals. And it’s pretty gross.

It isn’t in the worm’s interest, as it were, to have this massive inflammatory response in its host, so it secretes a large molecule called “ES-62.” ES-62, according to researchers, seems to act like a “thermostat” for inflammation. With no known adverse health effects, ES-62 reduces the inflammatory immune response that causes elephantiasis, as well as rheumatoid arthritis, while leaving intact the immune system’s other mechanisms for fighting infections.

Similar research has been done on parasitic schistosomes (blood flukes). Populations with high infection rates of certain schistosomes have a greatly reduced incidence of allergies and asthma, and the thought is that the blood flukes are also able to regulate their host’s immune response so that it ignores some irritants (like the flukes) but still doesn’t allow the body to become too sick.

Wild, huh?

So get yourself some worms, y’all. Foxy boys and girls can tell when you’re sneezing and limping (not attractive), but they can’t see the worms and blood flukes teeming through your system. So you decide.

Jan
10
2008

Hookworms in the lining of the intestines: All together now: "ewwwwwwwwwwww."
Hookworms in the lining of the intestines: All together now: "ewwwwwwwwwwww."Courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Cleanliness is next to godliness, but is it possible to have too much of a good thing? For several decades, immunological diseases -- such as hay fever, asthma, diabetes and multiple sclerosis – have been increasing in developed countries, but are uncommon in many undeveloped regions. Medical researcher Joel Weinstock theorizes that modern life is too clean – by scrupulously avoiding dirt, bugs and germs, our immune systems don’t develop properly, leading to the diseases listed above. Weinstock goes so far as to speculate that exposure to hookworm, pinworm, and other intestinal parasites may have been the trigger necessary for developing a healthy immune system. As these parasites have been eradicated, immunological diseases have skyrocketed.

The theory is currently being tested in the lab. Weinstock doesn’t advocate the return of worm infestations. But he does think that getting your hands dirty once in a while can help keep your body in balance.

May
04
2006

After all the rain we've had recently, parents of toddlers in the Twin Cities area surely have two questions on their minds:

  • Will this rain EVER stop? Or, more accurately, will this rain PLEASE let up before I'd rather lie down and get eaten by bears then spend one more second cooped up in the house with my two-year-old?
  • And why are there worms all over the sidewalk whenever it rains?

I can't help with the first question.
But the second, that's a topic for Science Buzz!

I always thought that the worms came out of the ground when it rained to avoid being drowned in their burrows. Turns out I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

A series of Straight Dope articles, by Cecil Adams, have enlightened me.


Worm: (Photo by Jiva)

Turns out that the worms are in no danger of drowning. They can actually survive underwater for quite a long time. They are out on the sidewalk after it rains to engage in, um, "amorous activity." For the slimy details, read the Adams' column!

Of course, that's not ALL the worms are doing. They're also trying to move safely to new areas; vulnerable to drying out as they are, they can only do this aboveground at night or after a rain.

My toddler will be blown away by all this. Her explanation is that worms come out because of some altruistic notion that robins are hungry...

For more information about earthworms, check out this JourneyNorth Q&A page.

Dec
27
2005

Imagine that you are on a glacier and all around you thousands of black worms rise up out of the ice. It sounds like a scene from a science fiction movie, but it isn't. The worms are ice worms, and they're real.

Ice worms are extremophiles, animals that thrive in conditions that most creatures would not be able to survive, such as volcanos, glaciers and deep in the ocean. Ice worms live in glacial ice. They average around 1 cm long and 1 mm wide, and eat snow algae. Ice worms are the opposite of worms like earthworms, in that instead of becoming less active as temperature decreases, ice worms become more active with cooler temperatures. And there are a lot of them. One glacier can have an ice worm density of 2600 worms per square meter.

The ideal temperature for an ice worm is zero degrees Celsius, or 32 degrees Fahrenheit. This ability of ice worms to thrive in such extreme temperatures is the focus of a three year $214,206 NASA grant. Researchers hope ice worms can help unlock the secrets of how life might survive on distant ice worlds such as Europa.

Ice worms actually disintegrate through the process of autolysis when they are exposed to temperatures greater than 5 degrees Celsius. (Autolysis in cell biology refers to the destruction of a cell by its own digestive enzymes.) With the glaciers that are the only habitat for these organisms slowly melting due to global warming, ice worms are losing their habitat. If you consider that there are over 7 billion worms in one glacier, their impact on ecologies that are influenced by the glaciers must be significant, both in terms of biomass and in terms of nutrient processing. There is a lot more to learn about these organisms, and the role they play in the ecosystem.

For a time ice worms were believed to be mythical creatures — there is even an amusing poem that features the ice worm. I never knew these things existed — pretty amazing worm, I think.