Microscopy & Microtechniques

What is the ‘Obama Parasite’?

Sep 09 2016 Comments 0

After nearly eight years in office, President Obama has finally received the honour every politician dreams of. A parasite has been named after him. Ok, maybe it’s not quite the legacy he wanted to leave, but what is the ‘Baractrema obamai’? Where is it found? And is it deadly?

Blood fluke

A group of scientists discovered the parasite in the blood of Malaysian turtles. It’s a long, thin parasitic flatworm that can infect the lungs of the black marsh and Asian box species. It could be found in other species in the future, however.

Known as a blood fluke (Schistosoma), the parasite is not yet thought to be deadly. Blood flukes in general are known to be the cause of a number of infections in humans, and the Baractrema obamai is actually a distant relative of one such parasite that can be fatal to humans.

Insult or honour?

Despite this parasite not being deadly, it’s still not certain whether Obama should be proud of the name designation or offended. Thomas Platt, one of the scientists involved in the study, was given the privilege of naming the blood fluke. Now retiring, Platt explains that “this is clearly something in my small way done to honour our president”.

He’s previously given names to over thirty new species and names them after people he has “a great deal of respect for”. This one in particular reminded him of the president because “it’s long, it’s thin, and it’s cool as hell.” He’s not wrong. The parasite is two inches long and as thin as a human hair.

Distant relations

Like the Baractrema obamai to the more harmful parasites, Platt is actually distantly related to the president himself. The Parasitology expert from St Mary’s College, Indiana, is Obama’s fifth cousin twice removed. For those of you who aren’t clued up on genealogy, that means Obama’s great-great-great-great grandparents are the great-great grandparents of Thomas Platt.

A growing list

It isn’t the first thing to be named after the 44th president of the states. In fact, it’s not even the first parasite. A spider, parasitic worm, lizard, fish, puffbird and fungus organism are among his namesakes along with several schools, streets, and even a mountain.

It’s also not the first time Obama has become involved in scientific research. In the past, he’s been a supporter of World AIDS Day. Dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic, World AIDS Day has taken place on the 1st December each year since 1988. Despite this raised awareness, there are still a number of challenges facing researchers of blood-borne viruses, which are explored in ‘Testing for Blood-Borne Viruses: the reach for wider sampling’.

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