Intestinal parasites might turn most people’s stomachs, but for some people suffering from ulcerative colitis, the creepy crawlies might actually reverse intestinal discomfort and symptoms. A new study found that infestation with whipworms, aka Trichuris trichiura, can ease the symptoms of an inflammatory bowel disorder, possibly by stimulating mucus production in the intestines.
Ulcerative colitis is an intestinal auto-immune disease causing inflammation and ulcers, which can bleed. Patients can either take immune-suppressing steroids (with lots of side effects), or have parts of their intestines and bowel removed to reduce symptoms.
One colitis patient, on a lone voyage to cure his bowel problems, went in search of worms after hearing about a researcher, Joel Weinstock, who believes that intestinal parasites like whipworms and hookworms can cure autoimmune diseases. In 2004 he was able to get his hands on a batch of human whipworm eggs from Thailand. He ingested 500 of them, and the eggs hatched inside him and set up shop in his intestines (want to see a picture? Beware: linked photo may make you revisit your lunch). Three months later, he downed 1,000 more eggs.
None of this was done under doctor supervision, of course, since the only kind of whipworm approved for medical testing in the United States don’t live very long in humans. After the patient has filled his bowels with worms, he contacted parasite immunologist P’ng Loke. The man allowed doctors to take a gander at his colon and track the worms and his symptoms, Loke explained to LiveScience:
By Rose Eveleth
Bomb squads have long used metal detectors, x-ray machines, and dogs to uncover threats. Without these tools, authorities may not have intercepted some of the thirteen homemade explosives that froze Greece’s outgoing mail earlier this week. But soon they may have a new tool to help find the bad guys and their bombs: microscopic worms.
In a paper published last month, researchers at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization described the effectiveness of Caenorhabditis elegans–a millimeter-long, mud-loving nematode–in detecting chemicals associated with explosives. If they’re right, bomb detection could get cheaper and easier. But not everyone is convinced.
This nematodes isn’t the first organism investigated for its keen sense of smell. Dogs, rats, pigs, cows, insects, bacteria, and even plants have been used to find explosives. So far, nothing has worked as well as the trusty canine snout.
But according to lead researcher Stephen Trowell, a machine that uses his worms could surpass all these in sensitivity. “All signs are that it’s as good as it gets,” he said.
The nematodes smell chemicals like nitroglyceride and cyclohexanone—both found in the air around homemade C4 explosives—through tiny scent organs on the sides of their mouths called amphids. Each amphid has twelve different kinds of receptors that relay signals to the brain.
On Wednesday, Iran launched a rocket into space–with a special and somewhat wriggly payload.
One mouse, two turtles and some worms were packed into the “experimental capsule” in the “Kovoshgar 3″ (Explorer 3) rocket and were given a one way ticket into the great yonder. The rat, nicknamed Helmz 1, and his buddies will now live out the rest of their lives on the rocket, their movements monitored by live video relayed from the space ark.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad exulted over the success, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, saying:
“We are two more steps away from reaching a point of no return. To a point where we bring all the skies under the domain of Iranian scientists.”
If ever a species got the disgusting name it deserved, bone-eating worms would be the one. Robert Vrijenhoek’s team discovered them five years ago eating the bones of a dead gray whale off California, and since then they’ve shown up in whalebones around the world. The worms don’t have mouths or anuses—instead, they rely on their bacteria to handle nutrient uptake and waste disposal. And according to a new study by Vrijenhoek in BMC Biology, there’s more to these strange sea-dwelling scavengers: They might have been around since before whales even existed, and are probably more numerous than we thought.
Back in 2004, Vrijenhoek’s first analysis of the bone-eating worms, which carry the scientific name Osedax, found five different species. However, according to the genetic analysis he carried out in the new study, there could be as many as 17 distinct evolutionary lineages.
Osedax is old, too. Using a molecular clock taken from shallow-water invertebrates, the researchers calculated that the bone worms could have split off from their nearest relatives 45 million years ago, about the time whales arose (and became meals for Osedax upon dying and sinking to the bottom). But if Vrijenhoek used a different clock, one designed for deep-sea worms, he found that the bone-eaters could date back 20 million years further, to a time before whales even existed.
Scientists will have to look at fossils of ancient whales and their predecessors to figure out the history of bone-eating worms. But they already know these oddball sea creatures have a taste for more than whales. Vrijenhoek told Wired.com that he has offered cow, sea lion, and pig bones to Osedax, and the worms like them just fine.
Discoblog: New “Worm Charming” Champion Sets World Record
Discoblog: Barry the Giant Sea Worm: Fantasy Turns Real in the U.K.
Discoblog: Let Them Eat Dirt! It Contains Essential Worms
DISCOVER: Weird Worms Feast on Whale Bones
Saturday was a big day for the world’s worm charmers: The 30th annual World Worm Charming Championships took place in the U.K. Competitors aimed to draw as many earthworms out of the soil as possible using techniques from tap dancing to rock music, and a 10-year-old girl emerged victorious after raising a record 567 of the wigglers in half an hour.
Research shows that creating vibrations draws worms from the soil to the surface by mimicking the sensation of a burrowing mole, which feeds on worms, according to an NPR interview with Mike Forster, the chief wormer and founder of the International Federation of Charming Worms and Allied Pastimes [audio]. The Telegraph reports:
“The weather is a big factor,” says Mike Forster, a retired policeman. “When it’s warm, with a bit of moisture in the air like today you’d expect a good score, but there are still a lot of things we don’t understand.” Including, precisely, how the art of charming works. For many years it was presumed that the vibrations created by noise, fooled the worms into thinking it was raining. Apparently uncomfortable in wet soil they instinctively head for the surface.
But, recently, this theory has come under scientific challenge. Last year, in a breakthrough piece of research, Professor Kenneth Catania, an American neuroscientist, specialising in sonic phenomena, argued that the vibrations created by the best charmers, uncannily replicated those produced by moles. Moles are a worm’s worst nightmare, with the shovel-footed beasts able to eat their weight in worm every day.
Worm charming is not for the faint of heart; sometimes it requires tap dancing on a plank to the Star Wars theme song, and apparently new techniques continue to emerge.
If ever there was a real-life sea monster, it’s Barry the giant sea worm. Discovered living in a U.K. aquarium, he is four feet long and vicious: He not only attacked the aquarium’s coral reefs and prize fish (tipping staffers off that an invader was in their midst), but also bit through 20 pounds of fishing line and most likely ate and digested the bait—and hooks—on traps that were set out for an injured fish.
Aquarium officials think that Barry (a name they came up with) arrived in a delivery of coral, though they’re unsure of how long he’s been stalking the premises.
Here’s some medical advice kids will like and parents may be surprised to hear: “Children should be allowed to go barefoot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat,” says Dr. Joel V. Weinstock of Tufts Medicial Center. (He also suggests having lots of cats and dogs around the house.)
And he’s not alone. Increasingly, medical researchers have come to believe that our current obsession with cleanliness is making us sicker. Eat a few worms, ingest some fecal bacteria, get a taste of dirt, they say.
Evidence supporting the hygiene hypothesis, which says that a lack of exposure to microorganisms at a young age prevents the development of a healthy immune system, is turning up in many forms. In one study, pampered dogs that had been fed only human food and bottled water developed eczema, but after they were given mud taken from a cowshed, the eczema disappeared. In another study, scientists were able to prevent Type I diabetes in mice by giving them an extract taken from tropical worms. In yet another study, Argentinian patients with multiple sclerosis who were infected with whipworm developed milder symptoms.
Despite all the amazing advances in recent medicine, there are still plenty of simple problems lacking a clear solution. For one, we still haven’t found a great way to heal fractures in the top of joint bones—any mistake in alignment when the bone is being repaired, and you wind up with a useless joint—not to mention terrible arthritis.
Enter a team of bioengineers at the University of Utah, who had an ingenious idea: If sandcastle worms can produce natural glue strong enough to hold together a tiny sand-home against the intertidal surf, why not copy that glue and use it on broken knees?
Now, the first generation prototype of the so-called worm glue has been tested on cow bone pieces (from groceries, meaning the cows were already deceased) and has performed 37 percent as well as commercial superglue. The results will be published online in next week’s edition of Macromolecular Biosciences. Lead author Russell Stewart projects that they’ll be testing the glue on live animals within a year or two, and on humans within the next five to 10 years. While the glue won’t be able to fix your broken femur, it could be very useful for small bone fragments in fractured knees, wrists, elbows, and ankles, as well as the face and skull.
Moles can eat their own weight in worms each day. But they’re no match for human worm grunters—also known as worm snorers, fiddlers, or charmers— who can collect thousands of worms each day, selling them for bait. Worm grunting involves thrusting a stick into the soil and rubbing it with a piece of steel to generate vibrations that send earthworms fleeing to the surface. It’s quite popular in the southeastern U.S.— but until now, no one really understood why it worked.
Ken Catania, a mole expert at Vanderbilt University and MacArthur genius award winner, made the connection between moles, worms, and human grunters. The humans are fooling the worms by unknowingly imitating the sound of a burrowing mole. The worms instinctively surface (faster than you’d think) because moles generally stay underground when foraging.
Earthworms don’t appear to be the most astute observers—they have no eyes, they wander foolishly onto heavily trafficked sidewalks whenever it rains, and they have simple pairs of cell clusters for brains. But when it comes to sex, these hermaphroditic critters can detect something that many humans can’t: whether or not their partner is a virgin. And they compensate the sperm load accordingly.