Tuesday, June 20, 2006

we are agents of the free

In case it was not abundantly apparent previously, I have some of the most horrifying eating habits on earth. I happened to luck out with a good family history and a general lack of taste for high fat foods, so I have not managed to topple over from a heart attack (yet), but no one would mistake me for healthy. But there are a few things I have tried to be vigilant about over the years. I am big on getting a steady supply of calcium into my body, because I believe in that sh*t. Will you still feed me when I'm 64? Um, yeah, I'd really prefer to be able enough to feed myself when I'm that age. So, to avoid hip replacements, osteoporosis and all that other stuff, I actually pay attention to getting the right amount of calcium.

This year, I have also started to pay more attention to Vitamin C. It was convenient that I also discovered Mineola Tangelos around the same time. However, recently, my local grocery store has played a cruel game with me, and stopped stocking the tangelos that they introduced me to in the first place. Bastards! Since I do not want to develop scurvy, I have stooped pretty low, and started drinking what is basically a a glorified form of Tang. And here's the really embarassing part: I actually like the taste of it. Class-ay!

Don't worry, there is far more interesting news to be found in the NYT, in which Toxoplasma gondii was reviewed so perfectly, I was gleeful reading it. The evolution of parasites is fascinating. Unlike viruses, parasites are alive and, in that way, are somehow even more tempting to anthropomorphize. The writer of the article in NYT clearly indulged himself a bit:
"Researchers in Sweden report that the parasite fans out through the body by manipulating mobile cells that are part of the immune system. Toxoplasma hijacks these so-called dendritic cells and makes them race around the body and ignore commands from other immune cells to commit suicide. The dendritic cells sneak the parasites into the brain and other organs, acting much like a Trojan horse."

Some people get really bent out of shape when we attribute human qualities to parasites and viruses and stars and whatever else, but personally, I think it's a critical part of our comprehension. Maybe it is a problem of language or a limit of imagination, but the way those quoted sentences sum up how Toxoplasma successfully infiltrates the body are an ideal jumping off point. If you can sketch in your mind what the parasite could be doing based on that description, you can go back and get all the pesky details and data to fill it into a real picture.

The most fascinating thing to me about Toxoplasma gondii is not that it's one of these nifty parasites that figures out a way to get into the body and thrive, while not really causing any harm to your average healthy human host. Work on Toxoplasma gondii and other parasites is showing a connection between infection and behavior in a host. The most familiar example of this to most people is the way the rabies virus causes rabid behavior in the infected host. But Toxoplasma gondii shows more subtle effects.

Pregnant women hear about Toxoplasma gondii if they own cats, because cats are major carriers of the parasites, and one of the most successful species when it comes to infecting other hosts. And while the parasite does not hurt a healthy human, it can be dangerous to a baby, because of their underdeveloped immune systems. So, women with cats often have to get their pets tested for the parasite to make sure they are not putting a baby at undue risk. See, I knew there was more than one reason I disliked felines.

But here's the cool part (to me). Because cats play such an important role in the proliferation of Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite appears to alter the behavior of rats. I know- wha?!? But rats have a natural fear of cats. And rats that are infected with Toxoplasma gondii appear to develop an actual attraction for cats. The theory is that the parasite would find such a physiological change in the rats beneficial, because it would make them more likely to be eaten by cats. And if the infected rats are eaten by cats, then the parasite is successful in getting into its ideal host.

Researchers still do not understand exactly how the parasite manages to induce the attraction. When they figure that out, I will be signing them up to work on what parasites I have, and why they induce an attraction to Gael Garcia Bernal, even when he's playing an incestuous sociopath. You know, the really pressing issues.

No comments: