Sunday, March 17, 2013

Ascaris: the subtle, understated badass

Nature is full of badasses. They come in all sizes and shapes and flavors. Some are big, obvious and downright terrifying: your leopards, cheetahs and other their ilk. Some are ruthless, relentless and overwhelm by the numbers. Army ants fall into this category. Never cross the path of an army ant. Some prefer to take the subtle approach. They display their badassery not by devouring you whole or laying eggs in your dead bodies or ripping you systematically apart. Nope. They believe in the power of invisibility.

The badass on display is from this camp.
It looks like this:

Ascaris: all-around badass

It goes by the name Ascaris lumbricoides. Or roundworm (although technically there are others that compete for this generic name also). Yawn. So prosaic, right?

So prosaic in fact that it infects an estimated billion people worldwide (two, if you believe some of the more optimistic assessments). One Billion. A seventh of humanity.

This mighty parasite lays eggs (and we're talking tiny microscopic eggs) and these eggs chill around in the water mostly. They can be in the soil and food products also. Unsuspecting human ingests these eggs (say, by drinking that water) and boom, it's in. Now these eggs are some of the hardiest and most durable things in biology. Dessication, chemicals, iodine - none of that usual abrasive stuff works on them. After ingestion, eggs hatch in the small intestine and cute little ascaris worms come out.

Next destination: the lungs! These larva travel all the way to the lung (a pretty impressive feat because the digestive track is not directly connected to the pulmonary system. The worm has to travel in the blood). From here, the poor unsuspecting human coughs them out.

Now the devious bastard comes up through cough and gets swallowed. And it ends up in the small intestine. Yet again. Satisfied with this sorcery, it finally matures to its adult worm. Now it puts down down payment for a nice house, buys a nice car, and settles down in your cozy gut.

These things can grow up to 30 cm long. Push away your computers for a second and dwell on that impressive display of badassery. This thing lives in your gut, in all its brazenness, eats the same stuff you eat, and grows amazingly big right inside of you.

Most infections are fairly asymptomatic, but sometimes it throws a tantrum and causes serious complications like bowel obstruction. Surgery is needed in extreme cases. Here's a nice video of valiant surgeons pulling out a handful of worms (they look like spaghetti!) from some unfortunate person's belly:

So next time you are visiting your local shrine of badasses, don't forget to lobby to include this intrepid havoc wrecker in that shrine.

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