Simple math may solve longstanding problem of parasite energetics

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Posted July 3, 2013
This image shows Hymenolepsis diminuta, more commonly known as the rat tapeworm. Credit: Todd Huspeni

This image shows Hymenolepsis diminuta, more commonly known as the rat tapeworm. Credit: Todd Huspeni

Feeling faint from the flu? Is your cold causing you to collapse? Your infection is the most likely cause, and, according to a new study by UC Santa Barbara research scientist Ryan Hechinger, it may be possible to know just how much energy your bugs are taking from you. His findings are published in a recent issue of The American Naturalist.


“When we get sick –– particularly with infectious agents –– we often talk about having our ‘energy drained,’ or of ‘having low energy,'” said Hechinger, an associate research biologist at UCSB’s Marine Science Institute and Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology. “This common language highlights that energy may provide a useful currency to investigate how infectious agents, or parasites, impact their hosts.”

Unfortunately, he added, there has been little research on the energetics of parasites and their hosts, largely because scientists have been stymied by the difficulty of measuring the energetics of parasites living inside their hosts.

However, it may be possible to predict how much energy parasites drain from their hosts, according to Hechinger, simply by modifying equations from the metabolic theory of ecology –– a theory that describes the relationships between metabolic rates, body temperatures, and sizes of organisms. Typically applied to animals and plants living in ecosystems, Hechinger said these equations could be used for parasites living in host bodies. Further, because a host’s body is like an ecosystem for its parasites, applying the metabolic theory of ecology can provide unique ways to better understand the ecology of animals in larger ecosystems.

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