We don’t often think about them, but microscopic animals really run the planet. The king of the minuscule is the nematode, which ranks as the most numerous multicellular animal on Earth. Any fistful of dirt will contain thousands of them, and the World Health Organization estimates that 2.9 billion people are infected with some form of nematode.
It should be no surprise, then, that the media is also riddled with nematode news. Like the worms themselves, all you have to do is look a little closely to see them. Here are five varieties that are making news in late 2014.
1. The Grinch nematode that stole Canadian Christmas.
Europe isn't producing enough Christmas trees to meet demand, while Canada is exporting trees to the world—so it makes sense to sell the trees across the Atlantic. But there’s something blocking this market: a tiny worm called the pine wilt nematode. These worms kill trees by entering the vascular system and cutting off nutrients. To gain a clean bill of health and open up the European markets, a team of Canadian government scientists are investigating the tree-killing worms to prove they are not prevalent or, if they are, to find a way to get rid of them. They are using a clever, if ghastly, detection method: Finding the beetles that transmit the nematodes to the trees, grinding them up, and testing the remains for worm DNA.
2. The nematode that became the brain of a robot.
It all started so innocently. A group of open source researchers founded the OpenWorm project to map the brain and body of nematode Caenorhabditis elegans (which was also the first multicellular organism to have its genome mapped). The group modeled every cell in the creature’s body, and the 302 neurons in its brain, in a bid to create the first digital animal. Not content to wait for a digital worm that reacts like the real thing, OpenWorm member and neurobiology researcher Tim Busbice used the project to build a Lego robot that has the brain of a nematode in digital form. Watch it react to the environment in this video.
C. elegans might also help cure cancer. In the mid-1980s, two young medical researchers named Victor Ambros and Gary Ruvkun were investigating how the genes of the C. elegans nematode helped it develop from a larvae to a worm; they discovered that there are mutations that make the worm mature prematurely or not at all. The mechanisms at work are bits of molecules called microRNA that pass genetic messages. By 1993, Ambros and Ruvkun published the findings proving that microRNA existed. It took a while to take root, but we now know that there are almost 2000 unique human microRNAs that are responsible for regulating more than half of all human genes. Other medical researchers are saying that some out-of-control microRNA cause cancer, and are trying to figure out ways to create therapies. This year, Ambros and Ruvkin—now at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital respectively—received a Breakthrough Prize and $3 million award for their work. The presentation of the award, started by a gaggle of billionaires, featured Seth MacFarlane as master of ceremonies and Kate Beckinsale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cameron Diaz, and Jon Hamm served as presenters. Go worm researchers!
3. The ancient nematode found in fossilized poop.
Paleontology is not all about T. Rex bones. Anyone who is a regular reader of the journal Parasites & Vectors (you know who you are) will know that researchers recently found evidence that animal-nematode relations have been going on for a long time. In 2007, archeologists in Brazil collected fossilized poop—scientists call it coprolites—from warm-blooded proto-mammals called cynodonts for future study. In 2014, a team of scientists from universities in Paris, Brazil, and Nebraska studied the 240-million year old remains and found pinworm eggs. It was a new species, called Paleoxyuris cockburni, in honor of Aidan Cockburn, founder of the Paleopathology Association. It’s the most ancient pinworm ever found, but the researchers are now looking for more.
4. The (thankfully) rare nematode that is spooking organ transplant recipients.
In November, Robert "Jim" Stuart and Darren Hughes received vital, long-awaited kidneys from the same donor. Both underwent surgery in Cardiff, Wales, but died from complications. It turns out the kidneys were infected with the Halicephalobus gingivalis nematode, which caused fatal cases of meningoencephalitis. The donor had also died of the disease. "This organism is almost unknown to medical science and there was no test for it in the circumstances of this transplant,” the coroner said in his report. Before this, only five people had been diagnosed with this nematode invasion. Now the families are suing and, according to ITV, the cases “raise organ donation questions.”
5. The nematode in the center of a trade war.
To paraphrase Tony “Scarface” Montana, first you get the ginger, then you get the power, then you get the women. Commodity trading is often a source of tension between governments, and a recent dust-up between Fiji and Australia has nematodes at the center. A few months ago, the Australian government decided to allow imports of ginger into Australia, much to the dismay of the Australian Ginger Growers Association. They claim the surface spraying mandated by the government, in accordance with World Trade Organization guidelines, is not enough to prevent the spread of aggressively burrowing nematodes (Radopholus similis) found in Fiji. The worry—besides the increased competition—is that the worm could spread to other crops like bananas and pineapples. The Australian politicians are already reacting, recommending the formation of biosecurity and quarantine operations. Legit fear or economic fear-mongering—either way you look at it, these little worms are in the midst of a large fight.