A Bountiful Balance of Parasites

What starts as a normal workday ends with the forced insertion of a larval Ceti eel into your inner ear. Face it, we’ve all been there. But have you thought to fight this invasive alien presence by, oh, slapping a Puppet Masters slug to your back or swallowing one of those Dreamcatcher intestinal weasels?

The sci-fi nursery rhyme basically writes itself. Allow enough fictional parasitic monsters to crawl inside you and your body quickly becomes a parasite battleground. And hey, if they’re too busy fighting each other for squatter’s rights in your large intestines then maybe they won’t have time to take over your brain or burst out of your abdomen, right?

Such parasitic turf wars actually go down inside host organisms, according to a study published this week in the journal Science. The team of British and Argentinean researchers looked into the heated conflict zone we call the common field vole and observed some actual benefits for the host organism.

But wait, don’t graft that tingler bug to your spine just yet. It’s not all sunshine and happy faces.

According to the study, infection by one species of parasite sometimes opens the door to other invaders. For instance, if a vole comes down with cowpox virus, the rodent’s susceptibility to other parasites increases. It’s just like the antler-loving bug in Thidwick the Big Hearted Moose, only nastier.

Still other parasitic invasions lowered susceptibility to other infestations, however. The study pointed out that an infection by the bacterium.

On the other hand, the study found that voles infected the bacterium Anaplasma boasted reduced susceptibility to the protozoan Babesia. Oh, and chronic infestation by Babesia cuts down on the chances that something called a Bartonella will feast on your precious red blood cells.

Hey, there’s only so much of you to go around and a lot of it comes down to what stakes the stronger claim. Its like one of those prison movies where the new guy just picks the one scary, abusive inmate to protect him from all the others.

So in short, this latest study sheds even more light on the complex relationship between parasite and host. Along with continued coverage of helminthic therapy (fighting allergies with hookworms), it blurs the distinction between a parasitic and symbiotic relationship.

But still, go easy on your Yeerks, Goa’ulds and head crabs.


Robert Lamb is a senior staff writer at HowStuffWorks.com and co-host of the Stuff from the Science Lab podcast and blog. He is also a regular contributor to Discovery News, where he strives hard to work Ghostbusters references into particle physics articles.

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