Guest post: Parasite on parade
Last weekend a giant parasite visited to Glasgow. Jamie Hall, a PhD student at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology, explains how and why.
It may seem surprising that Scotland, thousands of miles from the tropics, is at the forefront of research on malaria, trypanosomiasis, leishmaniasis and other devastating tropical diseases. Yet there’s a long-standing tradition of Scottish parasitology, as described by Mike Barrett and colleagues in the booklet ‘The Scottish Encounter with Tropical Disease’ (PDF 7.1MB).
The microbes behind these diseases – Plasmodium, Trypanosoma, and Leishmania – have been inhabitants of Glasgow for decades. Although it’s important that they remain carefully under control in laboratories, I’ve often wished I could take them out and introduce them to other Glaswegians. In spite of the suffering they cause, they are really extraordinary, beautiful, mysterious organisms.
Last year I was cycling to work the day after the 2009 West End Festival Parade, thinking about the various costumes I’d seen and thinking about the day’s work ahead. It struck me as strange that parasitology had no part to play in the parade. After all, like the local businesses, bands, community groups and schools represented, the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology (where I’m studying for a PhD) contributes to the culture, economy and character of Glasgow and its West End.
In my mind the parade’s Chinese Dragon morphed into a trypanosome, writhing through the park, and I thought it would be funny, and fun, to introduce a giant parasite to Glasgow. It would symbolise the strong parasitology research that goes on in the city, and show that scientists aren’t too aloof to take a part in local events.
The idea fermented in my mind for the best part of a year. Fantastic support from the staff at the Centre, particularly from Director Dave Barry, gave me confidence that this could work. But I worried that without some kind of explanation the giant trypanosome would be no more than a weird in-joke.
A short expositional comic seemed an ideal accompaniment. Together with my old friend Edward Ross we created the Parasites comic, inspired by contributions from members of the Centre. Edward drew a series of striking images to captivate and disarm readers whilst describing the background, rationale and methods of our work. He enlisted New Yorker Rachel Morris to draw an eye-catching front cover and a back cover with a quirky trypanosome diagram to act as a reference for onlookers during the parade.
Although I’d had plenty of experience making giant banners for Amnesty International, a three-dimensional giant microbe was going to be more of a problem. I got 45 metres of purple organza from a shop in the Barras and carried it across town strapped to my bicycle. The structure of the body was made from as a giant roll of plastic tubing, cut to size and made into hoops with advice from hula-hoop websites. I got the poles by trading my flatmate the last of my Talisker whisky for a lift to B&Q.
Slowly the pieces assembled, and I worked late into the nights, the needle of the sewing machine hammering up and down, the beast slowly engulfing the whole of the living room. Flatmates – and our dog – were bemused but tolerant. Strands of frayed organza littered every surface.
Eventually, with colleagues holding the structure in place, the final stitches went in, and the whole thing was carefully carried out of the close and up to the University for the parade.
The finished parasite is about 8 metres long – over half a million times the microscopic trypanosome’s actual size and one of the biggest floats in the parade. It features a huge dangling balloon for a nucleus and a shimmering purple-pink surface coat.
As it slowly swayed through the park on the day of the parade we handed out over 1200 copies of the Parasites comic to intrigued onlookers. Although it was less agile, less streamlined, and less beautiful than its tiny pathogenic cousins I hope the giant trypanosome, alongside the comic, served as a good introduction to parasites and the work we’re doing to tackle them.