Daring escape from a death star

One of the more unusual talks at last year’s International Worm Meeting was given by Jonathan Hodgkin from the University of Oxford about a deadly bacterial infection in worms.  Now their paper‘s out so I can share some of the gory details with you!

One aspect of bacterial infections that I find interesting in worms is that bacteria are both their main source of food and a potentially deadly source of infection.  Sometimes they kill in spectacular fashion.  The paper reporting the results of Jonathan’s experiments was just published in Current Biology and it’s open access, so you can go read the original paper in full if you’d like to learn more.  Perhaps their most striking finding  is that a newly described strain of bacteria wages asymmetric warfare against worms: although the bacteria are much smaller, they are able to very effectively capture swimming worms by sticking them together at their tails:

wormstar

Worms trapped by bacteria strike a death star pose. One lucky worm escapes.

The trapped worms die relatively quickly and are consumed by the bacteria.  A gruesome but efficient way for the bacteria to thrive.  But it’s not hopeless for our courageous friends the worms.  Larval worms trapped in a death star are able to take extreme measures to escape by performing autotomy.  That’s right, they cut themselves in half.

worm-autotomy

An adult worm that escaped from a worm death star at an earlier larval stage. Although missing a significant part of its tail, it’s able to self-fertilise and survive.

Even the truncated worms are often able to self-fertilise.  Sometimes extreme measures work for worms, as they do for humans.

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About André Brown

I'm a scientist with the Medical Research Council in the UK.

One response to “Daring escape from a death star”

  1. Dennis Dumesnil says :

    Wow! I’ve observed this by accident before once with worms suspended in M9 solution and adding E. coli inoculated lysogeny broth to sustain them. I’m thrilled to discover that someone studied this phenomenon! Thanks for sharing!

    -Dennis Dumesnil
    Dr. Pamela Padilla’s Lab,
    University of North Texas

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