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_Parasite Rex_ by Carl Zimmer is a fascinating, well written, and very informative look at the strange world of parasites. Though I was worried that the book might carry a high "gross" factor (and in truth some things were a bit disturbing), my concerns soon evaporated as I became intrigued by these incredibly interesting and important organisms.
Early in the book we learn just how diverse a group parasites are. Most people when they hear parasites mentioned might picture tapeworms or perhaps something out of a science fiction/horror movie, but in reality parasites include protozoa, nematodes, fungi, wasps, flies, crustaceans, some species of plants, even bacteria and viruses (which Zimmer writes for some reason are not often thought of as being parasites, though that is indeed what they are). Many parasites are highly specialized (such as a species of nematode that lives only on the Achilles tendon of a particular species of deer or worms that subdivide the human eye - retina, orbit, chamber - into different niches for different species) and often are extremely common on a given animal (one parrot species from Mexico was documented to have thirty species of mites living on its feathers; one duck was found to have fourteen parasitic worm species, each in its own particular section of the intestine, numbering 22,000 individuals all told). Parasites can include "social parasites" like the cuckoo, which gets other bird species to raise its young. According to some researchers, parasites may outnumber free-living species by as much as four to one.
Zimmer covered much of the history of the study of parasites. In ancient and medieval times their presence in animals was confusing. The existence of so many different worms, flukes, and other creatures in fish and other organisms people examined lead to ideas of spontaneous generation, an idea considered heretical by the Church as only God could create life. Well into the nineteenth century parasitology was more of a "loose federation than an actual science," as veterinarians struggled against livestock parasites, entomologists analyzed some species of insects, and specialists in tropical medicine repeatedly failed in their efforts to develop vaccines and drugs to treat parasites (Zimmer discussed at length why vaccines are generally quite ineffective against eukaryotic or non-bacterial/non-viral parasites).
Additionally, many historically have regarded parasites as being degenerate, devolved organisms. Some, such as nineteenth century British zoologist Ray Lankester, were positively horrified by parasites, appalled by organisms such as the barnacle _Sacculina carcini_, an animal that upon an adulthood found a crab, lost its legs, tail, and mouth, and gained all future nourishment from its host. Even when they didn't hate parasites personally, many researchers seemed to believe that parasites were largely irrelevant, not figuring into such things as say ecological studies.
In fact, Zimmer showed in the book that parasites are highly evolved and very capable organisms. Different parasitic copepods are specially adapted to cling to the differing scales of each particular species of fish that they infest. _Trichinella_ is a multicellular animal (a nematode) that lives inside a single cell, so adept at making a home in its host body that it is a "viral animal;" not only disabling a host's genes but manipulating them to help construct an ideal home. The root-knot nematodes of the genus _Meloidognye_ do much the same thing, changing the structures of the plant cells they inhabit by tampering with the host's DNA to build their homes. Some types of parasitic wasps are able to inject something akin to a virus to rework the DNA of the caterpillars they implant their eggs in. The extensive coverage of the on-going wars between immune systems and parasites was more than enough to dispel any thoughts that parasites were somehow degenerate; parasites are able to avoid, distract, and even manipulate the immune system to repel other parasites or disperse their offspring.
My favorite thing about the book was Zimmer's excellent coverage of the often bizarre lifestyles of parasites. Many parasites are able to manipulate their host's bodies in amazing ways. Many types effectively neuter their host, using resources that their host would have used to develop eggs instead to feed the parasites. One parasite of crabs (_Sacculina_) is even able to fool the host into treating its eggs as if they were the crab's, not the parasites. Zimmer discussed the ecological role of these spayed hosts at length as these evolutionary non-productive hosts compete with other members of their species that do reproduce.
Even more interesting, some parasites are able to change the behavior of their hosts; some parasites use more than one host species, with one or more intermediate hosts serving for a time as a home. When the parasite is ready to move to the next stage of host, it modifies its behavior so that the host gets eaten. One of several examples he provided was a tapeworm species that uses a beetle as an intermediate host before reaching its final host, rats; when ready to enter a rat the tapeworm makes the beetle sluggish, less conscientious about concealment, even turns off its only defense, glands that can produce a foul-tasting chemical.
A number of parasites unfortunately plague humankind and these are covered as well. Trypanosomes (a protozoa species) for instance cause sleeping sickness, an illness spread by the tsetse fly in Africa, an ailment that plagues cattle and humans in a wide swath of the continent (another species of trypanosome causes Chagas disease in South America, a disease that may have afflicted Charles Darwin).
Parasites can also be beneficial, useful in controlling introduced pest species (many introduced insects can only be controlled by importing their parasites) and possibly even having a positive role in developing medicines to prevent rejection of transplanted organs, prevent blood clots, and eliminate Crohn's disease, colitis, and possibly allergies.
Diverse and highly adaptable, parasites were fascinating to read about and Zimmer did an excellent job in covering them in terms of biology, ecology, medicine, history, culture, even as treated by Hollywood.
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