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Snails and streams and horsehair worms

Aug 2, 2021
5 min Read
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The strategies employed by parasites to ensure their growth and survival by controlling the behavior of their hosts is getting a close look this summer from a team of researchers at Creighton University.

Led by Amy Worthington, PhD, assistant professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, the team is seeking insight into parasitic manipulation of host behavior by focusing on the relationship between the sand field cricket and its long-lived parasite, the horsehair worm. In particular, the team will investigate how the host’s neural mechanisms are manipulated by the parasite.

The hunt for answers begins with wading boots and strainers as the student-researchers navigate streams in search of the horsehair worm cysts that they will use to experimentally infect crickets in hopes of shining light on the wider mechanisms of parasitic manipulation.

Beyond the impact on host behavior, the students will investigate the degree to which parasitic infection affects the host cricket’s fitness, as well as the effects it has on their offspring.

Finally, a cricket’s life is full of challenges, Worthington says, not the least of which is constant predation leading to loss of limbs. While crickets may regenerate lost limbs early in development, the impact of such regeneration on growth, survival, and reproduction is not well understood and is being investigated in a separate project led by a local high school student.

The student researchers helping conduct the study are Sneha Sengupta, Keni Tamashiro, Ramya Rengarajan, and Amanda Cohen. Sengupta is a student at Omaha North High School who is taking part in Creighton’s Haddix STEM Corridor Program, a high school-to-college opportunity made possible by a $10 million gift from George and Susan Haddix.