Te Radar

Element - - Contents -

Hu­mans: 10% hu­man; 90% ‘other’.

Iam not a very wel­com­ing host. I don’t rel­ish the thought of en­ter­tain­ing those that wish to feast or for­ni­cate in, or on, my per­son. How­ever I re­alise that for all my pompous self­aware­ness, I am sim­ply an ecosys­tem.

There could even be gree­blies liv­ing in the glands of my eye­lashes. The thought is hor­rific. How­ever, while De­modex

bre­vis feeds off dead skin cells on my face, a place they also use for mat­ing, I take some com­fort in the fact they don’t defe­cate there. Thank heaven for small mer­cies.

Par­a­sites have been in the news a lot of late. Sev­eral chil­dren in out­back Aus­tralia have been killed by a braineat­ing par­a­site for which med­i­cal ex­perts say treat­ment is “usu­ally in­ef­fec­tive”. That’s the least re­as­sur­ing med­i­cal phrase there is.

In Amer­ica a tape­worm lar­vae was found hap­pily domi­ciled in a man’s brain, while an­other man, in a ter­ri­fy­ing twist of bi­ol­ogy, got can­cer from one. Sort of. He de­vel­oped mul­ti­ple tu­mors caused by the worm. The prob­lem is that sci­en­tists aren’t en­tirely sure what caused the worm to cause the tu­mors.

They the­o­rise that mod­ern pol­lu­tants means that par­a­sites may be mu­tat­ing in ter­ri­fy­ing new ways. Let’s hope we’re not at the fore­front of some kind of new plague caused by mu­tat­ing par­a­sites, be­cause or­di­nary par­a­sites are scary enough.

Even as I type this, I am a home to crea­tures cur­rently do­ing all the things that crea­tures do. As lit­tle as 10% of the liv­ing cells that make up our bod­ies are ac­tu­ally hu­man. That means we are 90% “other”.

Of course, most of the 500 forms of bac­te­ria we house do pay their way, help­ing to pro­tect us from dis­ease, digest our food, or syn­the­sise vi­ta­mins. It’s the free­loaders and the wreck­ers that are a con­cern.

It’s not just the thought of a liv­ing thing in­hab­it­ing me that causes anx­i­ety. There’s also the wide ar­ray of ex­cit­ing new ways to be in­fested: amoe­bas that en­ter through the nasal cav­ity and eat the brain, blood-drink­ing worms that in­fil­trate the lymph nodes, small par­a­sitic fish that really do swim up, and lodge them­selves in, peo­ple’s ure­thras.

Per­son­ally I’m more wor­ried about chang­ing cli­mate in­creas­ing the range of such en­ti­ties as the Bot-fly. It sounds like some kind of elec­tronic nano-bug, but it’s a par­tic­u­larly clever par­a­sitic preda­tor.

They cap­ture mos­qui­toes, lay eggs on them, and release them so that the mos­quito then dis­trib­utes the fly’s eggs as it bites un­sus­pect­ing mam­mals, in­clud­ing peo­ple. The eggs be­come lar­vae, and the mag­got lives in­side you, even­tu­ally bur­row­ing its way out. Hope­fully.

It could be worse. We could be vic­tims of Cy­mothoa ex­igua. Known as the tongue-eat­ing louse, it does just as its name im­plies. Swim­ming through the gills of fish, the fe­male at­taches her­self to the fish’s tongue, sucks the blood from it, caus­ing it to at­ro­phy and die, and sim­ply re­places it. The fish then con­tin­ues to live with a par­a­site func­tion­ing as its tongue.

It adds a whole new mean­ing to the ques­tion: “cat got your tongue?” No. A crus­tacean killed it in or­der to re­place it and live in­side my face. How did that even hap­pen as an evo­lu­tion­ary trait? Just wait till some body-mod­i­fi­ca­tion afi­cionado hears about it and tries to do it.

Clearly we can’t trust par­a­sites to op­er­ate within our own lim­its of taste or even be­liev­abil­ity. If they want to give you can­cer, be your tongue, or live hap­pily in your eye­lashes they will, and there doesn’t ap­pear much we can do about it. So don’t worry. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed­bugs bite.

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