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Tales of parasites

Published: Jan 21, 2015 3 min read

Karen Hornby

Subject Specialist

National STEM Learning Centre

We have just been given permission to host a series of TED Talks in the eLibrary, which meant that I had to spend a few days searching through the 1700 videos to find talks which were suitable for the classroom - in other words, those with age appropriate language and good links to the curriculum. It wasn’t a chore! The talks are strangely compelling. Perhaps it’s the humour which the presenters inject into their stories, or perhaps it’s because you can find out about fascinating research that you wouldn’t normally come across.

The TED Talk that really captured the imagination of the National STEM Centre team was Suicidal Wasps, Zombie Roaches and Other Tales of Parasites. It lives up to its title by providing a tour of some weird and wonderful life cycles, and explores how parasites can control the behaviour of their hosts.

Ed Yong begins his talk by looking at a tapeworm which lives in brine shrimp. This tapeworm castrates the shrimp, causes it to turn bright red, makes it live longer and causes it to swim in groups. This is due to the tapeworm’s complicated life cycle involving different hosts. Only in a flamingo can the tapeworm reproduce, so to get there, it manipulates its shrimp hosts into forming conspicuous coloured swarms that are easier for a flamingo to spot.

Yong then goes on to describe several more fascinating examples of parasites controlling their host’s behaviour before asking whether human beings could also be controlled!

There are some great resources to go with this TED Talk in the eLibrary:

The Wellcome Trust has produced a series of animations which cover the life cycles of parasitic worms and certain protozoans which have evolved to exploit the human body, with serious consequences for health including Chagas' disease, leishmaniasis, malaria and trypanosomiasis.

And let’s not forget about parasitic plants! Rather than being rare anomalies, there are over 4000 known species of parasitic plants with representatives in 19 families of the plant kingdom. This film from TWIG summarises the main features of parasitic plants, and this catalyst article looks at different types of parasitic plants and how they derive their nutrients from the root systems of other plants.

To view our pick of TED Talks for the classroom, click here. The collection includes talks linked to the mathematics, science and D&T curriculum.

TED is a not for profit organisation devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues.