Mud and Guts


Sometimes when you want to discover something new you have to get your hands dirty. That’s how it is these days with my research in the parasite lab. I’m in the Netherlands on the island of Texel studying a parasite called Mytilicola orientalis. (Try saying that 10 times fast.) Parasites can’t survive alone so they rely on a host, who may be harmed by the parasite’s presence. Although my work can seem a bit gross, the parasite doesn’t have to be: this species infects shellfish only and it cannot hurt humans.

I know I promised galoshes but I ended up going all-out and donning a full wading suit. It’s all the rage in mudflat fashion. In my hand is a giant oyster. 
Photo by Jarco Havermans, NIOZ.

Mytilicola orientalis is a type of copepod. That means that it is a distant relative of crabs, lobsters, and shrimp. But this species doesn’t look like its cousins. Mytilicola has evolved to live in the guts of oysters and mussels. In there, it is safe and sheltered, and it has easy access to food, all provided by the mussel.

Unlike its relatives, Mytilicola is shaped like a worm, allowing it to live inside mussels’ intestines. It’s never more than a centimeter long, and it can’t infect people! Those two strands on its tail are egg sacs. Photo by Anouk Goedknegt, NIOZ.

The Pacific oyster has a long history with Mytilicola orientalis. But since the oyster’s introduction to the Wadden Sea some decades ago (as I described in the link here), the parasite hopped over to a new host. It now infects the native blue mussel as well. So now, the Dutch mussel species might be facing a challenge it never has before.

Very little is known about this tiny critter and what it actually does. Mytilicola are at most 1 centimeter long. That sounds small but to a mussel it’s very large, probably very annoying, and maybe even painful.

To the untrained eye, the inside of a mussel looks like a ball of snot, especially when you smush it between microscope slides like I did. With some practice you can learn to distinguish the various organs.

The first step is to actually get some Mytilicola to study. I get them from wild mussels that are already infected. To do that I go out onto the mudflats, armed with waders and buckets. By now I’m pretty accustomed to coming back soaked by saltwater or rain, and half-covered in mud.  

The next step is to go into lab and dissect the mussels. Sorting through the slimy organs and squeezing them between microscope slides can leave you feeling smelly for the rest of the day, but this is the only way we have to extract the Mytilicola from the host. After I’ve done all this, it’s finally time to study the parasite!

Now that I have the Mytilicola I need for the study, I can finally get started with setting up my experiment. There hasn’t been any research on the effects of the parasite on the mussel yet, so the parasite group at the NIOZ (the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, where I'm earning school credit as a Masters student intern) will be the first. It’s that - the possibility that you’ll find out something new, that nobody has ever known before - which makes all the hard work worth it.

I won’t mince words: the baby seals are so cute I just want to squish them. Fortunately they are being rehabilitated and will be released back into the wild, well away from my smothering attempts at love.

When I wasn’t in lab, I took advantage of living where I do. Texel is home to Ecomare, a rescue and rehabilitation center for sick and stranded seals. In addition to getting to “ooh” and “ahh” over the absurdly adorable baby seals, they have a number of other fun educational exhibits about the local marine wildlife.

The Danube River runs right through Budapest and along the grandiose Hungarian Parliament building.

Straying further from home, I hopped over several international borders before summer ended for a visit to Hungary. There I admired the stunning city of Budapest and marveled at the great spectacle of sights and sounds that is Sziget, one of Europe’s biggest music festivals.

At the festival Sziget I explored the Luminarium, an immersive experiential piece of art. I just wished the tent I slept in was this nice. Photo by Kat Stroehm.

Speaking of dirty, festival camping may not involve mussel guts but mud is nearly impossible to avoid. So there you have it: the grossest part of studying a parasite can be compared to a music festival on a rainy day.

 

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