Nematodes under the microscope. Image: CSIRO
A week or so ago, during a writing break, I spent some time peering through the microscope in my ongoing quest to find tardigrades in our yard. I had no luck on the tardigrades, but as usual I came across lots of fabulous little invertebrates.
Perhaps the most common creatures under the microscope were nematodes. No surprise, really. Nematodes are the most common multicellular organisms on earth; there are several million in every square metre of soil here in New Zealand. Most are tiny (less than 3 mm). But not all are so minuscule; the largest, a parasite of sperm whales, can grow to 8 to 9 metres in length.
Nematodes can be free-living or parasitic on animals and plants. In fact, most animals (vertebrate and invertebrate) and plants are host to at least one specialist nematode parasite. Free-living nematodes eat bacteria, fungi, or small invertebrates (including other nematodes).
As you can imagine, nematodes are of huge importance ecologically, economically, and from a human health perspective.
Humans are host to about 60 species of nematode. Diseases caused by nematode parasites in humans include: ascariasis (an intestinal infection that can cause growth retardation and a variety of intestinal and other problems), hookworm (causing anaemia and developmental problems),filariasis (a lymph infection, causing swelling in many body parts, including elephantiasis of the legs), trichinosis (an intestinal infection causing diarrhoea, fever, and other symptoms). Many nematode infections are asymptomatic, and it’s likely most of us play host to nematodes for most of our lives.
The control of nematodes is important in agricultural systems. Worldwide crop loss to nematodes is estimated to be 12.3 percent of production (US$157 billion). Livestock and domestic pets are also susceptible to nematode infection, and millions of dollars annually are spent to control nematode infections including lungworm, hookworm, trichinella, heartworm, and many others.
But nematodes aren’t just doom and gloom. They’re integral parts of natural ecosystems, and critical components in nutrient cycling (especially nitrogen) and food webs. They regulate the bacterial population in the soil, and provide food for many organisms (including some fungi, which catch nematodes with lassos, like tiny cowhands). They can be useful, too. Some insect parasitic species are bred to help control insect pests—a highly species-specific, organic control method.
And like the tardigrade, nematodes are tough. A culture of live nematodes aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia were the only organisms to survive the re-entry breakup of the shuttle, making them the only organism known to survive unprotected atmospheric descent.