Scientists amazed as tiny worm turns

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iol scitech june 4 nematode AP A microscopic view of Caenorhabditis elegans, a humble nematode worm less than one millimetre (1,000 microns) long.

It is 0.5mm in length – so tiny you can’t see it with the naked eye.

It fits on the tip of a pen or pin, but the roundworm has made it on to the list of top 10 New Species of the World.

The 2011 list was published by the International Institute for Species Exploration (IISE) at Arizona State University.

“We never in our wildest dreams thought the worm’s discovery would make it to the top 10 of the world. I’m so excited about it,” said Professor Esta van Heerden of University of the Free State (UFS).

Van Heerden is one of the researchers from UFS who helped discover the roundworm, also known as a nematode.

The worm was later named the Halicephalobus Mephisto in reference to the Faust legend of the devil.

“Because it was warm and dark where the worm lived we decided to name it H Mephisto, the lord of the dark”, said Van Heerden.

She said she was still excited about the fact that the research was published in the world-renowned science journal Nature last year.

“What freaked people out about the paper was that the worm had lots of cells; creatures with many cells don’t survive in strange environments,” said Van Heerden.

According to National Geographic News, before the discovery of the “devil worm” worms “were not know to live beyond many metres deep.

“Only microbes were known to occupy these depths – organisms that, it turns out, are the food of the 0.5mm-long worm.”

Van Heerden said the fact that the worm made it to the list was also important for SA and the mining community because it shows “we’re not doing research just to find funny things”.

“Everything we’re studying we hope will bring solutions in SA that will clean up the mine environment and the soil,” she said.

According to the IISE website each year an international committee of taxon experts evaluates species nominated by different bodies including scientists, scientific journal editors and the public, to choose the top 10 world species.

This time the international selection committee made its choice from more than 200 nominations.

The species have to provide attributes and importance of “world-wide interest”.

According to the website the worm made the top 10 list because of it’s tiny weight and because it is the “deepest-living terrestrial multicellular organism on earth” and also because it was discovered at a depth of 1.3km, where the temperature reaches around 37°C.

“This species is remarkable for surviving immense underground pressure as well as high temperatures,” read a statement on the site.

The borehole where the worm lived had not been in contact with the earth’s atmosphere for the past 4 000 to 6 000 years.

The “devil worm” was discovered in 2009 in a borehole from the Beatrix gold mine near Welkom in the Free State.

It has since found a comfortable home in a science laboratory at the UFS.

According to Van Heerden, when the team of researchers discovered the roundworm they had already started working on a project of trying to discover if there was life in strange and extreme places such as SA mines.

She said before the discovery in 2009 they had already came across single-celled life and they were sceptical when they came across H Mephisto in the borehole.

 

The 2011 top 10 list includes a sneezing monkey; SpongeBob Square Pants mushroom; night-blooming orchid; giant millipede; Sazima’s tarantula; walking cactus; Nepalese autumn poppy; parasitic wasp; and a venomous jellyfish. - Sunday Independent

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