PART 2 Of Series (PART 1 – 8/05/2021 Edition)
When Dr. Tom Platt, a 1967 graduate of Boardman High School, named a parasite in honor of former President Barak Obama, it set off a firestorm of negative comments about the naming, prompting Dr. Platt, retired biology professor at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind., to author and defend his action in the following ‘op-ed that was published in The Washington Post.
Buy this book now, World Scientific Publishing (https://worldscientific.com/worldscibooks/10.1142/12339) or Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/s?k=9789811239168&ref=nb_sb_noss).
(Final story of a two-part series)
I named a parasite after Barack Obama. It was meant as a compliment I’m the scientist who recently made news for naming a new genus and species of parasite after President Obama. Before you accuse me of being some kind of hater, racist or worse — as plenty have — let me be clear: I absolutely intended it as an honor.
I’ve had two species of parasites named after me, and I take great pride in the fact that colleagues thought my contributions to the field warranted this recognition. If I had named a new predator, say a jungle cat or bird of prey, for Obama, there would have been no question of my intentions. But most people have an unjustly negative opinion of the incredible — and, yes, beautiful — organisms that I have spent my life investigating.
The problem seems to be in how parasites make their living. Animal lovers don’t find it off-putting that predators capture and dismember their prey to obtain the energy they require to grow, reproduce and feed their young. But because of the way parasites draw off some of the energy of their hosts to achieve the same ends, they are somehow seen as lesser forms of life — when, in fact, they can make their hosts better.
Parasites are under constant attack by the immune system of the host; some parasites kill some hosts, some hosts kill some parasites. However, the hosts that survive possess immune systems that are better equipped to combat the infection and pass those attributes on to their offspring. Conversely, the parasites that survive the improved immune attack will pass those features on to their progeny. In many instances, a stalemate is reached whereby host and parasite coexist in a stable relationship.
Baracktrema obamai belongs to a larger group of trematodes (flatworms) called “blood flukes” that inhabit the circulatory systems of their hosts. Each major group of vertebrates — fish, reptiles, birds and mammals (amphibians are curiously exempt) — has its own corresponding species of blood fluke. This includes the species that infects hundreds of millions of humans worldwide and causes the disease schistosomiasis.
The life cycle of a blood fluke is daunting. Eggs pass from the host into water where they hatch and release a “miracidium” (a bit like a paramecium) that will die if it does not find its next host, a snail, within 12 hours. If it successfully penetrates a snail, the miracidium reproduces asexually and produces thousands of new forms called “cercariae,” which then leave the snail and have 12 hours to find the final host. For species of Schistosoma, that’s a human. For Baracktrema obamai, it’s a turtle.
When the cercariae enter the blood stream of the final host, you would expect them to face rejection, like a kidney transplant from an incompatible donor. The host’s immune system is fully capable of “recognizing” this foreign organism and destroying it. But amazingly that doesn’t happen: Within 24 hours, the parasite develops a type of molecular cloak — eat your heart out, Harry Potter — that makes it invisible to the host. If that isn’t fantastic I don’t know what is. We know only the rudiments of how this occurs, but if we could understand it at the genetic and molecular level, it could have potential for improving transplant surgery.
I can’t share all the incredible things that we know about parasites in this short space. Suffice to say they are amazing, beautiful and cool as hell. Anyone should be proud to have one named in his or her honor. I know I am.