Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#StevesLibrary: Parasite Rex

One the most fascinating modules I took as an undergraduate was one on parasitology, which up until that point I knew very little about. It’s one of those worlds that usually causes disgust with the general public (as with snakes, spiders or sharks too), but once you get into it, is like nothing you’ve ever read or learned about before. I remember trying to remember the intricate life cycles of parasites such as those of the Leishmania and Trypanosoma species, known to cause disease in humans. To be honest, this is something that I had largely forgotten despite recently describing a new species of parasitic worm (you can read more about that here). That all changed recently, when I read Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer, and most of what I had learned 6 or 7 years ago started to flood back into the forefront of my mind. I was particularly interested in African sleeping sickness and blood flukes, as after completing the module I was due to visit Tanzania as part of our Tropical Ecology field course. Whilst the parasitology module scared some, to me it helped me to understand more about the threats these parasites posed and how to best avoid them (if possible).

I do find the writing style of Carl Zimmer, very soothing and informative. Like that of David Quammen, you can tell that Zimmer is a well accomplished writer due to the way his prose just flow from one page to the next. Parasite Rex is full of the kinds of facts that would make the average person’s skin crawl, however if you’re a zoologist or just interested in parasites, then you’ll love this book. It helps to reveal so much about this hidden world and how science has changed (quite recently), to recognise it. As a species, we seem to have an unnatural disgust of parasites, whereas there is evidence to suggest that the rise in allergies seen in western countries, may be due to a lack of intestinal parasites. This makes sense when you look at the evidence, allergies are hardly recognised in developing countries where the parasitic burden is much higher than in the developed world. Despite the fact that Parasite Rex was first published 21 years ago, the scientific evidence still backs this up.

There have been a number of scientific developments since the publication of Parasite Rex, which make it seem a little dated now. These include the creation of an mRNA vaccine against malaria (using a similar technology to that of the COVID-19 vaccine), however there are still no licenced malaria vaccines available on the market. If one reads the book with these thoughts in mind, then it provides a great insight into the hidden world of parasites. One of the issues we have as a society, is that there are so few people working in the field of parasitology, that developments and new advances are slower than in other fields of biology. This in my mind is extraordinary given that parasites outnumber free-living species by several orders of magnitude. We live in a parasite’s world and it is about time we started appeciating them!

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