29 July 2014

Tracking tiny worms

Continuing the series of “behind the scenes” stories around papers in the new issue of Intergrative and Comparative Biology issue...

Brian Fredensborg and I had successfully collaborated on a project looking at parasites in the shrimp nervous system. Along the way, I bugged him about the possibility of doing another project on the local sand crabs, Lepidopa benedicti. I’d decided that there was so little known about that family, that anything we discovered about their basic biology would be new and publishable. And part of the basic biology of any species is the parasites.

I remember Brian mentioning to me after some of the first sand crab dissections that he saw some worms “But,” he said, with a slightly far-away look, “they’re tiny.”

But we knew there was something there to look at, which just meant that we needed a student to pick up the project.

As it happened, two years ago, in 2012, I got roped into having a summer high school intern, Meera Joseph:

I’d had a summer high school student back in 2006, and the experience was positive all around. But I didn’t want to take on more high school students for a long time. I just wanted a break.

Part of the reason I was persuaded to take on another high school student was I had an undergrad in the lab, Karina, who was very gung ho to mentor other students. I relented, and Meera got put on the sand crab parasite project. We knew there was something to look for, so this made it a project that would almost certainly give us some data in the time frame of the internship.

Brian showed her how to do the dissections and look for the parasites. I helped her set up the video recordings for the behaviour. Everything went well, and Meera finished her internship with a poster presentation and a very nice data set.

There was only one reason we didn’t write it up at the end of her internship.

We couldn’t identify the nematodes.

This seemed to both Brian and me to be kind of important. We hoped we could get down to something more specific than the phylum. It would be like identifying the sand crabs the worms were living in as “arthropods.” You could never do that for the crabs, so it seemed wrong to have no better identification for the parasite.

We made a little headway on the worm identification. But before we could get the level of clarity we wanted, it was time for the SICB parasite symposium in Austin, which I’d co-organized with Kelly Weisnersmith. Because Meera had already done a poster, I suggested she give a talk at this meeting, which she did.

Two things happened then.

First, I met and talked to actual parasitologists in this field at SICB, who sort of gave me their blessing. They told me that for this kind of work, saying “Species A, Species B, Species C” in a paper was okay. Suddenly, a gap that seemed insurmountable was now potentially navigable.

Second, the editor of Integrative and Comparative Biology surprised Kelly and me again. We thought we only had to deal with papers by speakers at our symposium. The editor said, “Why don’t you ask people who presented in the complementary sessions if they’d like to publish in the same issue?”

Well, gee, we’d just made all the graphs for Meera’s SICB talk. The text was written, submitted, reviewed, and I’m very happy.

I’m particularly pleased that because Meera was supported by our institution’s HHMI grant, they agreed to pay the fees so that Meera’s paper is open access, and free for all to read!

Additional, 1 August 2014: Bethany Brookshire (a.k.a. Scicurious) has written a nice article about Meera’s research!


Joseph M, Faulkes Z. 2014. Nematodes infect, but do not manipulate digging by, sand crabs, Lepidopa benedicti. Integrative and Comparative Biology 54(2): 101-107. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/icb/icu064

Related posts

823 days: a tale of parasite publication

External links

Crabby project inspires young scientist

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