|Photo of adult worm by Matthew Bolek
The trouble with studying a parasite like the horsehair worm is that because they have multiple hosts in their life cycle, in order to keep them in a laboratory you would have to also maintain colonies of all its host animals on stand-by to act as sacrificial hosts for the hairworm larvae to infect. Additionally, those little invertebrates are not always "in season" and they may not be available in sufficient number when the infective stages of the parasite are available for experimentation.
If scientists can somehow put the life cycle of these parasites on hold at each stage until suitable hosts become available for the parasites to infect, not only would it become less logistically challenging to maintain them in the laboratory, it would also allow scientists to carry out more detailed studies on their life cycles. Fortunately, there is an aspect of their biology that may allow scientists to do just that - the parasite we are featuring today - Paragordius varius - along with other hairworms that live in temperate regions are capable of surviving through winter either as a dormant larva or a cyst inside an aquatic invertebrate that waits until spring comes when there are cricket hosts around. During the winter months the larval or cyst stage of the parasite simply stay in a state of suspended animation as their surroundings freezes over.
This is also good news for scientists who wish to study them - these worms' ability to survive freezing means that the larval stages can be "put on hold" until suitable hosts become available. To explore the tolerance limit of these parasites, a team of scientists put some P. varius larvae and snails infected with P. varius cysts under a series of different conditions including freezing at -30°C or -70°C for 15-30 days or dried out at room temperature or -70°C for the same period of time.
|Photo of P. varius larva from Nematomorpha.net
So not only did this study reveal an interesting adaptation that allow these hairworms to complete their life cycle in temperate regions, it also discovered a way of making it easier for scientist to study them in the future. What had originally evolved in these parasites as a way for them to put their life on hold during those freezing winter may now also be the key for researchers to find out more about them.
Bolek, M. G., Rogers, E., Szmygiel, C., Shannon, R. P., Doerfert-Schrader, W. E., Schmidt-Rhaesa, A., & Hanelt, B. (2013). Survival of larval and cyst stages of gordiids (Nematomorpha) after exposure to freezing. Journal of Parasitology 99: 397-402.