Parasite: the Viking edition

3 minute read

Gutsy researchers have sequenced whipworm from ancient Scandinavian poo.

Norse men taking a break from pillage and wanton destruction may, unknowingly, have contributed to our understanding of intestinal health.

Their restroom visits have allowed researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the UK Wellcome Sanger Institute to genetically map one of the oldest human parasites, Trichuris trichiura (or whipworm to its mates) for the first time.

While they didn’t uncover any Viking-era Toilettet signs, the researchers had gone hunting for some bogs likely used by Ragnar Lothbrok and they came up trumps. Thankfully, when you gotta go, you gotta go and more than 2500 years later, that basic need has led to the reseachers uncovering some fossilised whipworms eggs wrapped in poo.

Their study was published in July in Nature.

Toilet humour aside, the parasite is of some interest to fans of all things intestinal. While these bad boys are rare in industrialised countries, and most often only cause minor problems among healthy individuals, the US CDC estimates that between 604 and 795 million people are infected by whipworm worldwide, so the finding has significant clinical value.

“In people who are malnourished or have impaired immune systems, whipworm can lead to serious illness,” said Professor Christian Kapel of Copenhagen Uni’s plant and environmental sciences department.

“Our mapping of the whipworm and its genetic development makes it easier to design more effective anti-worm drugs that can be used to prevent the spread of this parasite in the world’s poorest regions.”

The research suggests humans and whipworms have negotiated a convenient relationship over time that has allowed the parasite to keep its proverbial head down so it’s not repelled, giving it more time to infect new people.

A whipworm can grow from 5-7cm in length and live unnoticed in the intestine of a healthy individual for several months. During this time, it lays eggs continuously and these are expelled through faeces.

Since the parasite is transmitted via the faecal-oral route, those ancient Viking times when the kitchen and the bathroom were not only grubby but also closer together were the whipworm’s heyday.

And while Vikings are better known for trying it on with the Anglo-Saxons in Blighty, their, umm, contribution to science has been invaluable in this case.

So, if you find yourself caught short on that long road trip, don’t be too fussed about where you relieve the tension. Gut researchers may thank you for it in the future.

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