Parasites of all Persuasions Still Suck


English: Dicrocoelium dendriticum egg in an un...

Dicrocoelium dendriticum

We’re all familiar with typical parasitic behavior. A parasite latches on or invades a host organism where it feeds in ways that damage the host organism while benefiting the parasite. Ticks and leaches might come to mind when we think of parasites. There are plenty of run of the mill parasites jibber jabbering around the biosphere sucking life from hosts with a combination of exploiting weaknesses and using a simplistic bag of tricks to get their way. Let’s take a closer look at a few of them.

Female mosquitos use a combination of pain killer and blood thinner to plunge their nose into a mammalian bloodstream to suck out some blood. They actually don’t use the blood for themselves; they use the proteins and iron in blood to help make their eggs. The use of blood thinner and a painkiller demonstrates insight about the relationship that must take place to parasitically drain another organism. This insight is not unusual. Some other parasites express a great deal more insight about hijacking the mechanisms of the hosts on which they feed. Some of these take a parasitic ride on the mosquito. In the mosquito’s process of getting proteins and iron to feed their eggs they might also barf up a few other nasty parasitic payloads that happen to be swimming in their saliva. These can cause such things as malaria, encephalitis, West Nile disease and Yellow Fever which are also based on parasites that work at a cellular level. These tiny parasites within a parasite have the potential for much more devastating effects and considerable more insight into not only the workings of, but how to exploit the mechanisms of the host organism to its own advantage. For instance; viruses can trick cells to gain access then edit the cell’s metabolism to make copies of itself to the point where the call bursts allowing the virus to spread to other cells. It’s a fabulous intermingled web of parasitism.

There are still more parasites that appear to have an amazing amount of insight into the behavioral patterns of the multiple hosts on which they feed. Take the Lancet liver fluke[1] for example. It rewires the brain circuits of an ant host[2] to rethink what it needs to do. Once inside the ant, it performs a little brain surgery so that it stops doing what ants normally do and instead tricks it to think that it has discovered a life mission; to attach itself to the tip of blade of grass. Interestingly enough, this is exactly where the parasite needs to be in order to be eaten by a passing grazer such as cows or sheep. The fluke considers the ant a sacrifice that it is willing to make on the journey to the next exciting phase of its life. The creature migrates to the liver where it dines on the host, matures and mates. The fertile eggs then migrate to the digestive tract where they are excreted in the feces of the host. A snail[3] which happens to eat grazer feces becomes infected with the parasite. It defends itself by generating cysts to wall of the infection and excretes them out in its slime trail, which just so happens to be a source of moisture for ants which unwittingly eat them and nourish them into microscopic brain surgeons.

Hairworms are another parasite with a talent for brain surgery. It lives inside grasshoppers where it then rewires the grasshopper’s central nervous system to deceive them to think it would be a great idea to take a swim. The grasshopper drowns, but the hairworms get to swim out to continue their life cycle. This talent for brain surgery is not limited to tiny worms. Rabies is a virus which has amazing capabilities to edit the neurology of its host in order to generate behaviors that serve its purpose at the expense of the host.

A candy producer in the Philippines called Kopiko graciously sent obstetric doctors candy samples to give away to pregnant mothers. It just so happens that they may have had as much insight into behaviors as parasitic flukes. They had discovered that whatever pregnant women eat affects both their unborn child’s development and their future habits and tastes. Babies receive queues on what is safe from their mother’s metabolism. This influences their food choices among other things after birth.[4]  In a stroke of parasitic genius or coincidence, Kopiko later released a coffee flavored like the candy which the children were greatly attracted to. According to Martin Lindstrom,[5] mothers in the Philippines would even give agitated newborn babies the candy flavored coffee, which they reported “calmed them down”.

It may not be pleasant to face our darker nature. We could attempt to wall the notion that we parasitically feed on ourselves with some clever defensive ideological pearls such as “I wouldn’t do that.” In this case, we would be like the snail in the fluke story, passing a trail that would make the issue go away for a while, but setting it up to return. To ignore this part of our nature doesn’t change the fact that we are infected with a parasite that is destroying us, and it is us.

There is a direct parallel between the behaviors of marketers and parasitic flukes. It may not be easy to face our darker side as people, but to ignore the facts will not erase their destructive effects on our lives. We need to understand that becoming educated about the shark infested waters we swim in is a necessary survival skill if we want to be free to choose and not become the zombie of parasitic forces, no matter what their biological origin. Even more than becoming aware, we need to actively participate in changing this relational climate if we are to continue as a species. Every element of real wealth on our planet is built on cooperative relationships, not parasitic or predatory ones. This is true within our body. It is also true within and between species. It is time for us to understand the underpinnings of poverty and wealth and begin disciplining ourselves at every level of society to express this behaviorally. Our world and our individual lives will be richer from the effort.


[1] Dicrocoelium dendriticum

[4] For more information read Dr. Josephine Todrank at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Her work indicates that the developing fetus develops an increased affinity for things that come from the mother, including the influence from food products in her metabolism. The sensory system is shaped by the odors in the mother’s metabolism so that newborns are more sensitive to those odors and tend to prefer the foods associated with the odors. What women eat and drink during pregnancy has a cascade effect on what the child will be attracted to and/or repulsed by. Read “Nature-nurture interactions in the nose and how they affect food preferences” by Josephine Todrank Heth and Giora Heth

[5] Martin Lindstrom is the author of “Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy”

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