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Boston Skeptics’ Book Club #8: Parasite Rex

Posted on : Jun-25-2010 | By : Mary | In : Blog Post



Poor little guy never had a chance

Poor little guy never had a chance

This post is late for a good reason for once: I’ve been busy the whole week packing up to move to Waltham tomorrow! And I’m exhausted, so please excuse me if my thoughts are a little loopy. Now back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

This past Saturday, the BSBC met up for a beautiful day in the park to discuss all things parasitic in Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex. On the surface, parasites are disgusting (to me), but this book goes beyond the surface into the intricacies of parasitic life. In the beginning of the book, Zimmer discussed the origin and history of Parasitology and the history of what exactly scientists thought of parasites. Most scientists despised parasites, either because they were disgusted, thought the parasites were lazy, or feeling smug over their alleged evolutionary superiority, and as a result the science of Parasitology is not as established as other sciences.

Zimmer goes on to write about how parasites figure out where to go in a host and how they evade the immune system so effectively. In fact, labs have started researching the chemicals that parasites use to sooth the immune system because something like that could be used to treat auto-immune disorders (like allergies or Crohn’s Disease) or even help patients who have had organ transplants.

The parasites themselves are interesting, but just as interesting is how different plants and animals have adapted to fight off parasites. For example, sexual intercourse may have evolved as a way to fight off parasites by diversifying the genetics of a population of hosts (versus a population of hosts that reproduce asexually into a series of clones). Also, the book describes how the showiness of males of a given species is directly related to how infected the population is. Some plants, when bitten by caterpillars, will release a chemical that attracts parasitic wasps to kill the caterpillars.

Getting rid of parasites isn’t always desirable. In fact, in a given ecosystem with fish and birds, a parasite might infect a fish and make it flop around on the surface so that it will be easier prey for a bird, the parasite’s desired home. If the parasites were eradicated from the ecosystem, the fish population might thrive, but then the bird population might drop because of the lessened amount of prey. Some scientists are using parasites as a form of “organic” pesticide to tamper with ecosystems, but the results can be as helpful as they can be disastrous.  For example, in Africa the Cassava plant, a primary source of food for many people, was being destroyed by Cassava Mealybugs, so after a little research scientists flew in some foreign parasitic wasps to get rid of the mealybugs and save the day. However, on Hawaii scientists have also brought in parasites to eradicate undesired species, with the after-effect of wanted species being infected and also eradicated.

This book was an interesting read, because the first time I read it I was completely grossed out, but on my second read I really understood how amazing and intricate parasites are (as long as they stay away from me, of course).  And it goes without saying that you probably shouldn’t read this book if you’re going to eat a rare steak soon, or any dish that is especially noodly. I’d probably even stay away from Bubble Tea for a bit. In honor of Parasite Rex, I have composed a haiku:

Blood Flukes mate for life,
embracing and making sweet
love, in your liver.

Did you like the book or did you feel like it was too drawn out, like a Guinea Worm being slowly pulled out of your leg and wrapped around a stick over a period of days? Do you have any haikus or odes to parasites to add? Did the book skip over one of your favorite parasites that you really want to mention? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

The next book is An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales by Oliver Sacks, described as a book about people who are “differently-brained”, like a surgeon with Tourette’s Syndrome who is plagued with tics except when he operates, a man with memory damage who can’t remember anything past 1968, an artist who gets in an accident and goes completely colorblind, and also a chapter about Temple Grandin (one of my favorite women to read about). Our next meeting will be on Saturday, July 24th at 3 pm, and location is TBD pending good weather.

If you find yourself wanting to come to a BSBC meeting but can’t make it because Saturdays aren’t good, please write your day suggestions in the comments! Now that I am moving closer to Boston and my shift is normal, we may discuss doing something on a weeknight or a Sunday, whatever works for the group.

At the request of one of our BSBC’ers, I’m going to list the book for the meeting after next, in case anyone wants to get a head start on it. It’s going to be Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson (I haven’t yet read one of his books but I’m looking forward to it as he is one of my favorite contributors to This American Life).

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