Parasite, even?

10 Dec

It’s possible that I have not yet properly established myself as a gigantic nerd. If not, allow me to do so right now.

So there was this story on NPR this week. It ended up being a driveway moment for me, less for the story itself than for the debate it sparked in my mind. The basic gist here, if you’re not into clicking links or find the article too long or four minutes of radio too much to listen to, is that certain intestinal parasites can reverse and guard against the return of inflammatory bowel disease. This is a condition wherein your immune system gets angry at your colon and goes “raar colon I keel you” and your colon goes “o noes mah mucus lining!” and gets ulcers. It’s not particularly pleasant, and neither are the treatments if diet and steroids don’t help: you, the noble sufferer, can choose between drugs that suppress your immune system–good luck avoiding the flu–or HAVING YOUR COLON REMOVED.

Well, when you look at it that way, suddenly eating some worm eggs doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

EWWWW I know. Worm eggs. You eat them and they hatch in your digestive tract and they eat and breed and regulate your immune system and suddenly your colon isn’t dissolving itself. All in all, not a terribly bad trade for some food that you were just going to excrete anyway. And that’s what got me thinking. Throughout this piece, they referred to the worms as parasites. From the World English Dictionary:

1. an animal or plant that lives in or on another (the host) from which it obtains nourishment. The host does not benefit from the association and is often harmed by it
2. a person who habitually lives at the expense of others; sponger
3. (formerly) a sycophant

The question I would pose, then, is when does a parasite cross over into being a symbiont? Like all my questions, best answered with Dictionary.com.

n
an organism living in a state of symbiosis

Well that was lame.

symbiosis

n
1. a close and usually obligatory association of two organisms of different species that live together, often to their mutual benefit
2. a similar relationship between interdependent persons or groups

That’s more like it. This is a more appropriate word for it, since it (like the rectangle-square relationship) encompasses parasitism, but leaves room for the possibility that the host benefits. And yet throughout, the participants in this news story never once fail to refer to the tiny, somewhat helpful worms as parasites. Time and time again, they invalidate the poor little creatures’ potential positive attributes even while talking them up.

For a long while, I wondered why. And then it came to me: This is a conspiracy by the scientific community in order to suppress worm rights. It’s clear that, by definition these creatures are not mere leechers once they display the ability to give something back to their host. But as long as their status as useful partners in a two-way relationship is suppressed, then humankind can continue to eliminate and enslave these beings as we see fit. No more, I say! Rise up, worms, and

Okay seriously, I just thought it was neat. It made me think of various sci-fi parasites that display symbiotic tendencies. For instance, in the manga Parasyte, alien worms descend from outer space and invade (mostly) human brains. The process kills the host, leaving an emotionless monster programmed to feed on same type of creature that hosts it. Some invaders are less successful, such as the one that invades the protagonist’s body–it ends up taking over his hand. While this means that the protagonist is occasionally minus a limb, it also means enhanced physical capabilities for him, plus a companion who ultimately saves his life on multiple occasions. The same is true of the Goa’uld of Stargate series. Sure, they’re parasitic serpents that will leap into your neck and take over your brain, and might kill you if threatened, but if you’re so ‘kind’ as to be incubating one of their larvae, you get an extended lifetime and a pretty wicked immune system.

They’re always bugs or worms. So not creative. I’m gonna write a sci-fi story with bear-shaped parasites.

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