02/16/2018

Love On The Surface Of An Eyeball, Life’s First Steps, And Clues From Poop

7:22 minutes

closeup of human eye
Credit: Shutterstock

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a story of love gone bad: Two years ago, an Oregon woman with itchy eyes learned that the source of her discomfort was tiny worms living and breeding on her eyeball. It turned out she had a parasite normally found on cattle eyeballs—the result of a fly wandering onto the wrong animal.

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Buzzfeed News science reporter Nidhi Subbaraman explains the strange case, which turned out to be the first record of a human having the parasite. Plus, how a small sea creature might rewrite what we know about the origins of walking, and the ecological clues hidden in fossilized bird poop.

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Segment Guests

Nidhi Subbaraman
Nidhi Subbaraman is a science reporter at Buzzfeed.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’ll be talking about a new kind of fake news– forged videos and audio. But first, for everyone who celebrated Valentine’s Day this week, love may have been in the air. But what happens when love is on your eyeball?

One Oregon woman is in the news after finding herself on the wrong side of a parasitic romance. Here to tell us the story, plus more short subjects in science, is my guest Niddhi Subbaraman, science writer for BuzzFeed News. Welcome to Science Friday. How are you?

NIDDHI SUBBARAMAN: Very well. It’s nice to be here.

IRA FLATOW: So what happened to this poor woman’s eye?

NIDDHI SUBBARAMAN: Right. This is a case that has fascinated parasitologists, Ira. She became the first person known to be infected with eye worms that usually live on the eyeballs of cows.

IRA FLATOW: Wait a minute. What are they doing on her eyeball?

NIDDHI SUBBARAMAN: It was a complete accident how they got there. But one day, she felt a little prickling in her eye, you know, as if there was an eyelash stuck under there. And when it didn’t go away, she just reached in and kind of pulled, and there was this long, filamentous worm that sort of came out like a bit of thread. And then she reached in again, and she pulled, and there were a couple more. And between her and the doctors, they pulled out 14 worms.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, I hate it when that happens. [SIGHS]

[CHUCKLING]

She was OK– was she OK after they pulled those worms out?

NIDDHI SUBBARAMAN: Yes. Fortunately, these parasites are harmless if they are caught quickly, which it was in this case. She had a mild case of pinkeye, and otherwise was fine, besides being startled.

IRA FLATOW: But we have no idea how she got the worms there in the first place.

NIDDHI SUBBARAMAN: Researchers believe that the worms hang out on the eyeballs of cows and then hitch a ride for part of their lives in flies called face flies. So the suggestion is that one of these face flies wound up on her face– and she didn’t brush it off– and left behind a couple of worms that then proceeded to live and maybe mate there until they were pulled out.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. OK. We’re going to move on to something, well, maybe just as weird. This is fossil bird poop. Tell us about that.

NIDDHI SUBBARAMAN: Oh yes. This is a fascinating study coming to us all the way from New Zealand. Now, New Zealand has a really rich and unique history because it broke away from the main land masses many millions of years ago.

And so it had this distinction of hosting a variety of humongous birds, the moas in particular. They are all dead now because they were eaten when humans arrived. But they grew up to 6 and 1/2 feet tall, and they were up to 200 kilograms. And these fossilized poop remains can tell us a little bit more about what they did and more about the ecosystem of the islands.

IRA FLATOW: So while we don’t have any more moas, we do have the poop that’s left over from them. How do you find fossil poop in the first place?

NIDDHI SUBBARAMAN: You know, Ira, it’s actually hidden in plain sight, they say. Since these birds were around just a few hundred years ago in dry places, where the rain doesn’t get to it, where the sheep hide, there are these bits of rock that are really dried up bird poop remains. They are called coprolites.

What the researchers were able to do, they did a DNA analysis of the particles in there, and they were able to see what four different species of these extinct moas ate. So they were able to see, for example, that this one species ate pond snails and pond plants because they found a trace of a parasite there, others ate mosses and ferns, others ate mushrooms and fungi, and ultimately, helped them spread across the island.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Is this research going to help us understand any better how these remarkable birds went extinct at all, besides just getting eaten?

[LAUGHTER]

NIDDHI SUBBARAMAN: Not at present. But it does say why the forests of New Zealand are having trouble regenerating, because they relied on the fungi, and in turn the moas, to help them spread. And with the moas gone, the forests are having a hard time coming back.

IRA FLATOW: I get it. All right, let’s move on to your next story, which is about a skate that walks. And we’re not talking about Olympic skating here, are we?

NIDDHI SUBBARAMAN: Not this time. So skates are these really flat fish. They look like pancakes with a long tail. And they have this wonderful gliding motion with which they move through the ocean, sort of flapping their large fins.

Now, they found that they have a unique kind of walking motion. They have these large fins that they swim with, but they have tiny fins under them that they walk on the surface of the ocean with. And the same walking motion that they have– one fin, and then the other fin, and then the other fin– is remarkably similar to the way humans walk.

IRA FLATOW: So do they have the same mechanism for doing it, do you know– the muscles, the nerves– like we have?

NIDDHI SUBBARAMAN: Yeah. So the nerve cells that are in the skates are also in people. But this existed, they think, 420 million years ago– so up to 60 million years before the first life form walked out of the ocean to colonize land.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on, lastly, to some kerfuffle over a new DNA emoji. Of all the things we are talking about, tell us about that.

NIDDHI SUBBARAMAN: Ah yes. So the newest crop of emoji for this year includes some good science ones– there’s a petri dish, a test tube, and the DNA double helix. Now, researchers– well, scientists– saw on Twitter that the DNA was twisted the wrong way.

And this is an easy design flaw to make. But ultimately the right twist of the DNA is really what makes it unique and able to function as the basic element of life. So the DNA helix is a ladder that’s twisted, right?

IRA FLATOW: Right, right.

NIDDHI SUBBARAMAN: So if you were holding a jar with your right hand and you twisted it in a closing motion, that’s the wrong twist. If you open the jar lid in a twisting motion towards you, that’s the right twist. And while it’s a very simple design element, it makes the difference between being the right key for life and the wrong one.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you’ve put a new twist on that story. You know, for years, we’ve had the news media TV shows where they start with the globe turning. They have always been turning it backwards. Earth has been revolving in the wrong direction. Now we have DNA to match that.

Thank you very much for enlightening us, and welcome to Science Friday– nice to have you.

NIDDHI SUBBARAMAN: Thanks very much.

IRA FLATOW: It was great. Niddhi Subbaraman is a science writer for BuzzFeed in Washington.

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