24 April, 2012

Worms and the state of Gaia

Everyone has moments of epiphany, a tender second or two when through many trials and tribulations, one comes to a point of sudden clarity that crystallizes a long and troubled period of confusion. For most people, such epiphanies centre around relationships, God, love or one of the other major life themes. My epiphany centred around a parasitic worm known as Dirofilaria immitis, known more commonly as the dog heartworm.

I had spent 6 years completing a PhD on the subject of this mysterious worm whose claim to fame was a predilection for preferring to live in the heart of its host. Subconsciously, I found this a symbolic statement for where I was psychologically, having been through a difficult emergence from depression. The PhD scholarship had allowed me endless time to study this worm and attempt what was thought impossible at the time, to replicate the life-cycle of this worm (which in nature happens between a dog and a mosquito) within a test-tube. That I could finally achieve this procedure was not a testament to my industriousness, ingenuity or genius, but just good old dumb luck. I remember feeling so proud to have earned a PhD, proving that tenacity could overcome any limitations I felt with my own perceived lack of intelligence. However, this afterglow would only survive a few years. Nature, it seems, belies complexity through simplicity. I thought I understood how parasites worked, but within a few years, I was to learn that the more I knew, the less I knew.

Around the time the internet was emerging at university levels, before it filtered down into the general public domain, I began to read articles that could previously only be read 6-12 months after publication because of the time delays in postal services in other countries. Articles could now be read within days of being published online. It was to be a time leap in terms of rapidity of knowledge access - whose only downside was that theories could be developed at light speed, but also destroy in as little time.

As I settled into my post-doctorate life, working as a clinician, I read a relatively obscure article about a small bacteria known as Wolbachia, who live in the reproductive tracts of small parasitic worms. Put simply, this bacteria produces important chemicals and complex glycoproteins which the parasite cannot obtain from its host. The worm and the bacteria have what is called a symbiotic relationship. The worm gets vitamin supplements in exchange for having bugs in its back end, while the bacteria gets to 'hide' from the host in the worms tail in exchange for giving away some of its waste products. This all came to me within a few seconds - one plus one equals infinity. I had self-destroyed the premise of my PhD thesis and the entire modus operandi by which parasites survive and thrive. Reading this article made me realise that how heartworm lived was not just by being a parasite to the host, but also allowing itself to be parasitised by a smaller one, accepting itself in a feeding chain that probably goes on infinitely into a the atomic level, and perhaps even smaller.

There is a saying by the Chinese that 'big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite them, and little fleas have littler fleas and so on ad infinitum.' Nothing in the universe happens in isolation. To understand the heartworm parasite, I had isolated it in a test-tube and examined it without its companions and symbiotic partners and had not really fully understood how it lived. What this meant to my research was inexplicable as I no longer corresponded with the university where I did my PhD, but in the clinical world of veterinary science, the transformation of treatment for the disease was incredible. Now, rather than treating dogs with heartworm disease with arsenic-based chemicals, we simple used a broad-spectrum antibiotic to kill the symbiotic bacteria and the worms die from starvation.

I mention this above story as an analogy to anyone interested in heartworm as a symbol of spiritual work. Knowing the 'achilles heel' of a parasite is critical to defeating it. An example is seen as people awaken to and rejecting the monopoly of knowledge held by the US mainstream media.