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Our Little Friend of the Week: Parasites Edition (3/3)

Sorry for the delay…I’ve been both busy and lazy, forgive me 😛 Now. The first two were the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of parasites. I wanted to end this “Trilogy” with the most interesting bits of information about our little parasitic buddies. Granted, these would still count as the “bad”, but I find these to be more interesting. I hope you will too. Now, allons-y!

Mind-altering Parasitism is mostly what I will focus on today. I find it to be really fascinating how parasites can alter the brain chemistry of its host. Here’s an example of such an occasion…from an article I had read awhile back when I took Parasitology 1 a year ago.

Toxoplasma gondii: the “brain-hijacker”

This single-celled pathogen infects over half the world’s population, including an estimated 50 million Americans. Each of Toxoplasma’s victims carries thousands of the parasites, many of these residing in the brain. Scientists began to study this little fellow to try to find the reason for its impeccable success.

Researchers in Sweden report that the parasite spreads through the body by manipulating mobile cells that are part of the immune system. Toxoplasma hijacks these dendritic cells and makes them race around the body and ignore commands from other immune cells to commit suicide. Thus, a problem. The dendritic cells sneak the parasites into the brain and other organs, acting much like a Trojan horse. Very Ninja like, I’d say. But this can cause SERIOUS issues for the victim, as you can imagine.

Strategies like this one have made Toxoplasma incredibly widespread yet incredibly obscure at the same time. Mention the parasite to most people and chances are you will draw a blank (unless they are enthusiasts like myself!). Pathogens that infect far fewer people, like the Ebola and West Nile Virus, are far more known.

For most people, Toxoplasma causes no serious effects. It manages this by hijacking our cells and immune system, and establishing a careful harmony between parasite and host. Moral of the story: Once you get infected…you’re infected for life. More or less. However, for most people it wouldn’t be much of a problem. Toxoplasma can, however, cause serious brain damage in those with weak immune systems, like fetuses and adults with AIDS (or those taking immunosuppressants).

Cats play a major role in the parasite’s success. Our lovely felines can carry it in their intestines, where they can produce egglike cysts called oocysts. A single infected cat can shed 100 million oocysts in its droppings. The oocysts can survive in the soil for over a year and can contaminate drinking water. Oocysts can infect humans, by the way. Undercooked pork, chicken and other meat is another mode of being infected. So be careful when you cook. Once Toxoplasma enters a host, it spreads quickly. Within hours it can be detected in the heart and other organs. It is even able to infect the brain, which is protected from most pathogens by a tight barrier.

Scientists believe that the parasite is directing cells to move and to disseminate through the body. Antonio Barragan and his colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm had put dendritic cells in a dish and injected them with Toxoplasma. They noticed that the parasites triggered a peculiar change: the dendritic cells became hyperactive, crawling for an entire day. Injecting dendritic cells carrying Toxoplasma spread the parasites to the brain and other organs MUCH faster than injecting Toxoplasma alone. The researchers concluded that Toxoplasma was taking charge of the dendritic cells and riding along with them. Their results are published online in the journal Cellular Microbiology if you want to learn more. Or google it, my friends.

Parasitic Progress:
Toxoplasma gondii, the smaller organism at top, hijacks cells of the immune system. Scientists used mice to monitor the movement of Toxoplasma, highlighted above. Dendritic cells help the parasite spread faster than it could alone. Crazy, huh?

Furthermore, As Toxoplasma spreads through the body, it invades cells. Unlike other pathogens, Toxoplasma can enter almost every type of cell in the bodies of thousands of host species. The parasite slips into a cell by latching onto its surface and pulling the membrane over itself. It just sits there, and the host doesn’t recognize it as a foreign body it should destroy. Thus, no autoimmune reaction happens. But have no fear, there is a bit of relief in this. If Toxoplasma simply spread from cell to cell, it could cause serious harm. BUT killing its host is not in the parasite’s best interests: its goal is to get into its final host, cats, the only creature in which Toxoplasma can reproduce by making oocysts that are shed in feces.  Toxoplasma has evolved to be extremely contagious, but not very harmful.

However, there are certain individuals who should be careful. Toxoplasma becomes a menace when it does not have a healthy immune system to control. Pregnant women infected for the first time by Toxoplasma may pass it to their unborn children. Without a strong immune system to keep the parasite in check, a fetus can suffer massive brain damage. Up to 4,000 children are estimated to suffer toxoplasmosis in the United States each year. Toxoplasma is also dangerous to adults with weakened immune systems. The cause may be AIDS or immune-suppressing drugs given to people who receive organ transplants. A quiet Toxoplasma infection can suddenly “explode”, if you will.

Most scientists believe that people with healthy immune systems had no effects from Toxoplasma. But some studies in recent years have hinted that the parasite can exert surprising effects on behavior, at least in animals. In 2000, British scientists demonstrated that rats infected with Toxoplasma lost their fear of cats. They proposed that this strategy increased the parasite’s chances of getting into its final host. Clever, isn’t it?

In fact, it went so far as that the mice held a mild ATTRACTION to the cats odor. So, it is not just a loss of an old behavior…but a development of a new (odd) one. The mice were still afraid of other animals such as dogs or rabbits…but not of cats (which they are hard-wired to be frightened of…necessary for survival). It is possible that the parasite alters the production of certain neurotransmitters that are responsible for these instinctive fears and lack of attraction. More studies are being done to get a more accurate sense of what is really going on. So we don’t have all the answers right now.

Last note: Recent studies suggest that Toxoplasma is rare in meat sold in stores in the United States. However, experts still recommend cooking meat thoroughly to kill any parasites…which you should be doing ANYWAY. If you didn’t have any reasons to before, you surely do now. Also, as for the cats…you can keep your darling fluffy…just keep her inside (if you have a weak immune system at least). She will thank you, and you’ll be a bit healthier yourself!

I hope that this didn’t terrify I hope to at least have peaked your interest, even in the slightest bit. Comments are welcome and encouraged. Not sure what will come next week…I’ll be busy with band camp so mentally I’ll be a bit drained…but I’m sure it’ll be something interesting. Perhaps it’s time for me to blog about my FAVORITE disease…Flesh Eating Bacteria! We’ll see. Anyway, see you next time.

à bientôt!




Our Little Friend of the Week: Parasites Pt. 1: The Good

~There will be photos of parasites in this post, so you know. Don’t say I didn’t tell you~

For starters, I like parasites.  I have stated previous times that I’m a microbiology buff and I like all these creepy and crawly. Parasites are not exempt from this list of things that I enjoy. I have taken a Parasitology class and will be taking another one this coming semester…which, needless to say, I’m pumped about. I can’t explain my fascination with these strange creatures. I guess it’s because I like the unusual and “gross”. So, i decided that I’d blog about parasites for today. Now, parasites always get a bad rep. YES, they can be harmful to both humans and your favorite pet. But, they’re not always that bad. Just a lot of the time. So that’s not too bad right? 😉 That thought has inspired this blog post. You’ll see parasites at their best, their worst and most interesting. Since I have SO much information to cover…I’ll do it in three installments. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post them in the comments section! Now, Let’s proceed shall we?

~The Good~ aka, some reasons why they’re not THAT bad.

Reason 1: Parasites might cure autoimmune diseases. (Which is of interest to ME because I suffer from one…not that I feel I would ever use them in this way. :P)

In recent years, scientists have discovered that certain parasites have the ability to interfere with autoimmune diseases. For those who aren’t familiar with autoimmune diseases…think Crohns Disease, or a myositis…or inflammatory bowel syndrome. To be very short it’s a disease resulting arise from an inappropriate immune response of the body against substances and tissues normally present in the body. In other words, the immune system mistakes some part of the body as a pathogen and attacks its own cells. In my case, I have polymyositis. It’s an autoimmune disease where my immune system attacked my muscles as if it were a foreign invader…thus causing my muscles to become inflammed and then weakened significantly.The treatment of autoimmune diseases (at the moment…) is typically with immunosuppresion—medication which decreases the immune response.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that just anyone should go out and intentionally infect themselves with stomach worms as opposed to the current medicine available. That’s a terrible idea. But in some select cases where the benefits outweigh the costs, getting a parasite is a legitimate source of medicine.

One of the people involved in this type of parasite therapy research is gastroenterologist Joel Weinstock, who had a revelation of sorts when exploring the question of why diseases, from asthma to multiple sclerosis, are on the rise in developed countries but not in undeveloped parts of the world. Weinstock discovered a possible answer: our favorite friend, the parasite.

Weinstock’s theory — which is still being tested and has yet to been proven fully — is that there’s a direct correlation between a lack of intestinal worms and a rise in autoimmune diseases. In developed countries like the United States we’ve done an excellent job — some would say too good a job — avoiding parasitic worms, but we may be paying the price in the form of other, even more harmful diseases. We’re “too clean”, so to speak. Especially when you consider how most people, especially in the United States, feel about parasites.

Weinstock, in the early 1990s, noticed how prevalent inflammatory bowel disease had become in North America. At the same time, he realized that parasitic worms, or helminths, have a unique effect on their human hosts. Instead of inducing inflammation (the body’s normal response to invasion), they actually calm the immune system. According to the theory, because people have lived with helminths through much of history, the human immune system has evolved to fight them, and when worms are removed entirely, the body’s immune system turns against itself. Helminthic therapy, or worm therapy, may emerge as a legitimate field of medicine, but it’s still very new and few studies have been done to date. So, there’s no telling what more will come from this type of research. Who knows, maybe that could lead to (or be the) cure to autoimmune diseases. People who suffer from them, like me, can only hope. I can’t say if I’d be the first to jump the gun and TRY out a treatment like that…but if there was enough backing by scientific evidence AND (of course) test trials…I would be willing 😛

For more Information:

Reason 2: Parasites could potentially cure allergies.

Some intestinal worms are also believed to cure allergies, which share some notable characteristics with autoimmune diseases. Some people claim that our old friend the hookworm has the ability to cure everything from allergies to hay fever to asthma — but your allergies would have to be REALLY bad to knowingly infect yourself with blood-sucking worms. Though, I personally think that’s kinda cool…but I’m weird like that. A lovely gentleman named Jasper Lawrence made worm therapy for allergies famous a few years ago. Suffering from debilitating allergies and asthma, Lawrence heard about the theory that hookworms could cure allergies, so he traveled to Africa and walked around with his shoes off in several open-air latrines. After successfully contracting hookworms (and probably a lot of other things), Lawrence reported that his allergies had subsided, and he recently told the public radio program Radiolab that he hasn’t had an asthma attack or allergy symptoms since his visit to Africa. What to make of this? I wouldn’t put everything behind this JUST yet…but it’s something to think about, at least.

Unfortunately, the rest of this story doesn’t end all that well.

Convinced that hookworms are the answer to the world’s allergies and asthma, Lawrence — who isn’t a doctor — returned to North America and began shipping orders of hookworms to allergy sufferers, delivered in the form of a patch, for about $3,000 per treatment. But when the FDA caught wind of Lawrence’s little side project, he fled to Mexico and then flew to England, where he was born. Oops? I guess that wasn’t the brightest idea, bro.

Regardless, the underlying fact is that intestinal worms might provide important clues about how allergies work. Because of new research, as well as personal stories like Jasper’s, the hygiene theory, — which states that cleanliness and the lack of childhood exposure to bacteria and parasites leads to increased incidents of allergies and autoimmune diseases — is gaining wider acceptance. Several different studies are currently underway to look at how parasites like hookworms might be able to cure allergies and asthma, but nobody has definitively proven that hookworms are the answer. So again, we’ll have to see what happens in the future…if anything, that is.

Now. I hope that after reading this, you have a better appreciation for our darling little parasite friends. If not, I did try~ Now, next week, I will talk about the easiest portion of my “parasite chatter”…the bad. For every one good thing, there seems to be 10 ways parasites can screw with you 😛 Either way, I’ll see you then!

Our Little Friend of the Week: Lactic Acid Bacteria

This is my first post in my ‘Our Little Friend of the Week’ series. I am a Microbiology minor (though I have taken enough classes for it to be a major by now) and have a passion for all things microbe. Actually I like microbes, parasites and viruses. I love all of it. Call it odd, but they’re fascinating. I even have microbe plushies…don’t judge me! Anyway, I know that most people who don’t study biology don’t always necessarily realize how prevalent microbes (and the like) can be in our everyday lives. So, I am doing this for a few reasons: a) it would be fun to blog about something I’m passionate about b) I can blog about this…and make it easier to understand than reading some textbook that ASSUMES you know what it’s talking about and c) It would be something different, I think. I will try to select organisms that I think are most relevant to everyday people. I will try to keep them to medically or industrially important organisms. However, there are some that aren’t necessarily important on either level but…are ones that In find to be really cool, so I will post those as well. I will ALSO not be posting any gruesome pictures…unless requested to do so 😛 I am not phased by gross pictures of people affected by the many horrible diseases cause by various microorganisms…but I know there are many who can’t stand that. So. Don’t worry about seeing anything extreme. I WILL post some photos, but only of the less horrific instances. So, here we go 🙂

For my first post of the series, I had a hard time trying to think of where to start. So, I just went with what I think is one of the more industrially important microbes I can think of right now: Lactic Acid Bacteria. There are a lot of bacteria that are involved in the food industry. Most of us don’t take the time to think of what is in our food or what is giving it taste. I consume a lot of products fermented by lactic acid bacteria, thus why I am starting here. Lactic acid bacteria have been used to ferment or culture foods for thousands of years. Lactic acid bacteria refers to a large group of beneficial bacteria that have similar properties and all produce lactic acid as an end product of the fermentation process. They are widespread in nature and are also found in our digestive systems. So, they are friendly! If you like dairy that is…and aren’t lactose intolerant. Even if you ARE…you don’t have to hate them. Although they are best known for their role in the preparation of fermented dairy products, they are also used for the fermentation of sour dough bread, sorghum beer, cassava (to produce gari and fufu), most “pickled” (fermented) vegetables, as well as sausages. I think you will find something in this list that you like eating. You can thank Lactic Acid bacteria for that!

Bifidobacterium plushy. Sorry, they don’t really look this cute.

Bacteria from the genera Lactobacillus, Leuconostoc, Pediococcus and Streptococcus are the main species involved in fermentation of the food mentioned. However, there are many others also involved. I won’t go into those though, way too much information for one day I’d think. We’ll keep it simple. Lactic acid bacteria carry out their reactions – the conversion of carbohydrate to lactic acid – without the need for oxygen. They are described as microaerophilic as they do not utilize oxygen. Because of this, they do not cause drastic changes in the composition of the food. I think the best way to get a good general idea of what bacteria does what, I’ll list a few foods/drinks and which bacteria are involved in the fermentation.


Milk is sterile at secretion in the udder but is contaminated by bacteria even before it leaves the udder of the cow. Lactic acid bacteria are usually present in the milk, and are also used as starter cultures in the production of cultured dairy products such as yogurt or sour cream. Let’s say we were making sour cream. To manufacture sour cream, the species of bacteria Streptococcus is added directly to the cream. These bacteria grow in the cream incubated at about 70 degrees producing lactic acid. The acid causes the cream to thicken and cause the flavor of sour cream we are familiar with. Overall, careful selection of the right bacterial type to be added in different foods has lead to a variety of cultured foods. Another example: most of our cheeses owe their unique flavors and textures to bacterial growth. Also, San Francisco sourdough bread would not be ‘sour’ (have acid taste) if not for lactic acid from Streptococcus sanfranciscus (no, I’m not making this up) in the dough during the time the yeast is growing and making the dough rise. The list goes on, but these are just a few examples.


Lactobacillus acidophilus: used in yogurt, buttermilk and certain cheeses.


Probiotics: Probiotics are defined as “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” Yes, they are actually alive, and most of these microorganisms are bacteria. Most people think of antibiotics and antibacterial products when you mention bacteria. Both of those kill bacteria so why would you want to consume anything that has live bacteria in it? It’s all about balance. Our digestive system normally has what we would call “good” bacteria and “bad” bacteria. Maintaining the correct balance between the “good” bacteria and the “bad” bacteria is necessary for optimal health. When you consume probiotics, you are consuming “good” bacteria to help regulate and balance your digestive system. You are probably familiar with products like Activia, that do this for their products. Lactic acid bacteria such as Streptococcus Themophilus or Bifidobacterium are usually the ones behind the scenes in Probiotics.

Streptococcus Thermophilus: used in probiotic products

Bifidobacterium breve: used in probiotics.

Meat Products: The fermentation step in sausage production involves the action of a lactic acid bacterium on the sugar added to ground meat. This organism, generally a strain of Pediococcus cerevisiae added as a starter culture, ferments the sugar to lactic acid. The acid causes the meat to develop the characteristic texture associated with sausage. The flavor of sausage is due to the lactic acid, other byproducts of bacterial fermentation, salt, seasonings and nitrite. Salting also affords protection against many spoilage organisms. Nobody wants spoiled sausages.


Sauerkraut: Possibly to go on top of whatever sausage of your choice…. is fermented by various lactic acid bacteria, including Leuconostoc, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus. It has a distinctive sour flavor, both of which result from the lactic acid that forms when the bacteria ferment the sugars in the cabbage.

Leuconostoc mesenteroides: involved in the fermentation of Sauerkraut

I think this is a good place to stop. I really hope that those that read at least walked away with a better understanding (and appreciation) for these lovely bacteria that make some of our favorite foods so flavorful and even help us with our health. Next week, I think I will start taking a look at bacteria that are involved with the production of some of my favorite things: bread…and beer! (and more). We will be looking at the lovely microorganism, Yeast! 🙂


If you have any suggestions to make these posts more to what YOU want (I’m not writing this for my own education :P), please let me know in the comments. Also, if there is something you particularly want me to write about (a disease, microbe of any kind, scientific procedure, biological phenomena…anything) let me know too!

~Bacteria are your friends~