3D tech un­cov­ers par­a­site be­hav­iour

The Woolwich Observer - - RURAL CONNECTIONS -

A PAR­A­SITE THAT CON­TROLS the brain of its host or­gan­ism and causes its even­tual demise? You’d be for­given if you thought this was the plot of the lat­est block­buster hor­ror film.

For farm­ers, this phe­nom­e­non ex­ists out­side the movies and has very real im­pacts.

One of the most widely rec­og­nized parasites, or­gan­isms that live on or in a host, is Di­cro­coelium den­driticum (D. den­driticum), a liver fluke whose in­fec­tive stages are mainly found in ant ab­domens, with one or two in­vad­ing the ant’s brain. The par­a­site causes un­usual be­hav­iours, such as mak­ing the ant cling to veg­e­ta­tion that is eaten by an­i­mals, in­clud­ing cat­tle and sheep. This can have a dev­as­tat­ing im­pact, as con­sum­ing the par­a­site can cause the live­stock an­i­mals to de­velop liver dis­eases and a host of other is­sues that are dif­fi­cult to di­ag­nose and treat, which costs farm­ers time and money.

While com­mon and well stud­ied, the D. den­driticum par­a­site’s meth­ods have eluded sci­en­tists as they at­tempted to di­ag­nose how ex­actly it in­flu­enced the ant’s be­hav­iour. This is in part due to the fact that there were no ef­fec­tive ways to in­spect the ant.

Thanks to a break­through in his work, Dr.

Dou­glas Col­well, a re­search sci­en­tist at Agri­cul­ture and Agri-Food Canada, was able to see that D. den­driticum was ma­nip­u­lat­ing the ant’s be­hav­iour through a vis­ual scan of the ant’s brain.

“This was a good ex­am­ple of how sci­ence should work — dis­cussing ideas with col­leagues, fol­low­ing our in­stincts wher­ever they take us, and in this in­stance, mak­ing a dis­cov­ery,” said Col­well.

Us­ing mod­ern mi­cro com­puted to­mog­ra­phy (mi­cro-CT) scan­ning, a non-in­va­sive imag­ing tool, Dr. Col­well, along with col­leagues at the Univer­sity of Leth­bridge and the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum in Lon­don, Eng­land, cre­ated vir­tual three-di­men­sional (3D) mod­els of the ants in­fected with D. den­driticum that showed the pre­cise lo­ca­tion of the par­a­site in the ant’s brain. They also showed that the par­a­site grabs onto a por­tion of the nerves that con­trol the ants’ jaw mus­cles.

The dis­cov­ery is ex­pected be a big help to sci­en­tists in un­der­stand­ing how the par­a­site works and how they can po­ten­tially al­ter its de­struc­tive be­hav­iour. Re­searchers can also use the find­ings to de­velop sim­i­lar scan­ning tech­nolo­gies to study a wide range of an­i­mal and in­sect parasites.


A) Il­lus­tra­tion of the life­cy­cle of Di­cro­coelium den­driticum, im­age from the CDC (Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion). (B) Schematic il­lus­tra­tion of the setup used to scan spec­i­mens.

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