Monday, September 30, 2013


Donald A. Windsor    Norwich, NY
Post #6
Hosts seem to be unable to repel parasites at the species level. If they were able, they would be parasite free, which they are not. In fact, some parasites have coevolved with their hosts in a continual arms race to the point where the hosts seem to be addicted to their parasites.

Why? Why is parasitism a property of life? Why is it so widespread? What is it that parasites do to maintain the susceptibility of their hosts? Why cannot hosts evolve to repel the parasites that harm them?

Predation is a property of life, but it is external to the prey, so the prey cannot do much about it. But parasitism is based on easy entry, so hosts do have a chance to thwart entry. Perhaps parasitism is a form of predation. But, even if it is, it is different enough to warrant special study.

Perhaps parasites put "cookies" on their hosts' genomes. Cookies are programming codes that one computer puts on another computer to recognize it. Perhaps parasites insert genetic, or epigenetic, material into their hosts' genome. These parasite cookies would allow free passage into or onto their hosts' bodies.

Other symbionts besides parasites might also use cookies.

Sure, this is speculation on my part, because I have no data to support it. However, I prefer to regard it as a working hypothesis, one that can be tested by looking for parasite cookies.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Donald A. Windsor
Post # 5

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) found it "interesting to contemplate an entangled bank" (1).  So too do I.  However, I see something that Darwin did not.  I see the actions of parasites.  For without parasites, our entangled banks would be uninteresting monocultures.  Sometimes monocultures do take over banks; Kudzu, the invasive alien from Japan, is a splendid example (2).  But not to worry, because eventually pathogenic parasites will strike and once more the bank will regain its entangled diversity.

I was first exposed to Darwin's entangled bank while a grad student in 1959, when our department celebrated the centennial of the Origin of Species.  About two decades later, when I began serious investing, the stock market seemed to be an entangled bank.  Adam Smith (1723-1790) invoked his "invisible hand" as a very apt metaphor to depict market activity (3).  I put Darwin and Smith together and then wondered what Darwin's invisible hand might be.

Almost two decades later I was studying systems science (math and computers), so I saw Darwin's invisible hand as an emergent property of ecosystems, a case of the whole being more than the sum of the parts.  End of story.  Or so I thought.

But then I experienced a powerful epiphany.  My dissertation research in the 1960s involved blood-feeding parasites (4).  Unfortunately, I had to give up parasitology to earn a living.  I worked as an information scientist in pharmaceutical research.  When I retired in 1994, I tried to catch up with the past three decades of parasitology literature.  I rapidly read through it in a year and a half.  This fast-forward approach led me to this epiphany moment.

I realized that parasites actually ruled the biosphere and that parasitologists were so preoccupied with their day to day activities that they were not seeing the big picture.  That was when I created the concept of biocartels (5) and then realized that most of the species on Earth are parasites (6).

However, I still wondered why.  Now (finally) I think I know.  Parasitism is an inherent property of life (7).

I also now realize that the invisible hand managing Darwin's entangled bank is the vast insidious handiwork of parasites.  Without parasites, biodiversity would be much less diverse.

References cited:

1.  Darwin, Charles.  On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.  First Edition. 1859.

2.  Niering, William A. ; Olmstead, Nancy C.  Kudzu vine (Pueraria lobata).  In:  The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers.  Eastern Region.  New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.  1979.  Page 538.

3.  Smith, Adam.  ["Invisible hand."] In: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.  1776.  Everyman's Library version by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY.  1991.  Page 399.

4.  Windsor, Donald A.   Faeces of the medicinal leech, Hirudo medicinalis, are haem.  Nature 1970 September 12; 227(5263): 1153-1154.

5.  Windsor, Donald A.  The basic unit of evolution is the host-symbiont "biocartel".  Evolutionary Theory 1997 Aug; 11(4): 275.

6.  Windsor, Donald A.  Most of the species on Earth are parasites.  International Journal for Parasitology 1998 December; 28(12): 1939-1941.

7.  Windsor, Donald A.  Parasitism as a property of life.


Monday, September 9, 2013


Donald A. Windsor
Post #4
Parasitology is a descriptive and experimental field.  However, enough information has been accumulated to enhance it with a theoretical component.  So I present here nine hypotheses for testing.

1.  Most of the species on Earth are parasites. 

2.  Parasitism is an inherent property of life.

3.  Parasites harm their individual hosts but can benefit their hosts at the species level.

4.  Parasites can transfer genetic and epigenetic material between host species, even between hosts in different kingdoms.

5.  Sex evolved from parasitism.

6.  Parasites are drivers of speciation.

7.  Parasites are drivers of biodiversity.

8.  Parasites are drivers of ecosystems.

9.  Parasites are drivers of evolution.

I suspect that there are more hypotheses, but I will deal with these for now.


Friday, September 6, 2013


Donald A. Windsor
Post #3

From the beginning, life seems to have been based on the consumption of nutrients.  The wide range of different processes for obtaining those nutrients is reflected by the vast biodiversity on Earth.  Many organisms have specialized in obtaining nutrients by consuming other organisms through predation.  Many parasites prey upon other organisms by an intimate form of predation.

Needless to say, but predation harms the prey and parasitism harms the host.  The differences between predation and parasitism are dependent on the situation.  Predation can be fatal to animal prey whereas it is usually not fatal to plant prey. 

I am not merely playing with words here.  The distinction between a predator and a parasite became very real to me when I was working with an undeniable parasite, Paragonimus kellicotti, a lung fluke in mammals.  This trematode ingested host blood from its position in its host's lung. 

I wondered how its tetrapyrrole metabolism compared to that of the blood-sucking leech, Hirudo medicinalis.  I wanted to use the leech as an easier to raise stand-in for the fluke.  But is this leech a predator or a parasite?  Is the female mosquito a predator or a parasite?  Mosquitoes consume a blood meal in just a minute or so.  In my lab, leeches fed on guinea pigs for a few hours to over a day.  The lung fluke can persist in place for years.  Is the difference between a predator and a parasite a mere matter of time?  Or is it internal versus external?  How about a blow fly maggot eating dead flesh on a living host?  Or an ichneumon wasp larva developing in a live caterpillar?  What about fleas and ticks? 

If it is difficult to make a distinction between predation and parasitism, then perhaps there is no distinction, just a spectrum.  If indeed that is the case, then because predation is certainly a property of life, parasitism is also a property of life.


Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Donald A. Windsor,   Norwich, NY                                                          Post #2

If every living species were either a host or a parasite or both, then there would be no doubt that parasitism was an integral property of life.

Unfortunately, every living species has not been studied to the depth necessary to ascertain this information. However, enough species have been, so it does seem reasonable to make this assumption.

Why bother? Because the opportunity to see if this property is restricted to Earth, or is universal. Mars is currently being investigated. All properties of life should be looked for. If parasitism is found on Mars, then we can be more confident that parasitism is a universal property of life.

If life without parasitism is found on Mars, then we will be able to see why life on Earth carries such a parasitic burden.


Saturday, August 31, 2013


 Post # 1
Donald A. Windsor

 On this blog I will publish my ideas about parasites in ecosystems.  Parasitism is a role, or lifestyle, that would seem to be contrary to life, an evil burden that every free-living creature must endure.  Yet instead, it seems that parasitism is a widespread, integral property of life itself.

Understanding biology is impossible without understanding parasitism.  This blog will publish my attempts to do so.  But first, let me present a brief overview of my background in parasitology.

My interest in parasites began as an undergrad taking a class in protozoology. I went on to do my Masters thesis on the facultative parasitic protozoan Tetrahymena limacis. As a grad student I was a research assistant working with the lung fluke Paragonimus kellicotti in rats and cats. My dissertation research used the blood-sucking leech Hirudo medicinalis because it was larger, easier to raise, and could be purchased rather than captured. I was then awarded a predoctoral fellowship by the National Institutes of Health.
Unfortunately, I had to abandon this interesting subject when I left school in 1966. After I retired from Procter & Gamble in 1994, I wondered what had been happening in parasitology during the past 28 years. So I started speed-reading all the parasitology journals that were available in our local university libraries.
Upon completion, about a year and a half later, I was astonished by what I had learned. It could all be summed up in two words: Parasites Rule!
My fast-forward approach gave me a vast overview of an entire field. I had acquired a vision that other parasitologists apparently missed, because they lived it day-by-day, with their noses to the grindstone, each in his/her own tiny niche. The field of parasitology is characterized by tedious labor and narrow focus. Parasitologists can easily miss the big picture.
But not I. I grasped the big picture because of my fast-forward approach. Parasites rule the Earth because they outnumber all other species. Moreover, because parasites, by definition, harm their hosts, they inflict mortality and morbidity upon all other species in an ecosystem. When competition, or predator-prey interactions, or environmental forces cannot regulate free-living species, then parasites step in and take over the management of ecosystems.
Nature not only abhors a vacuum, it also abhors a monoculture. Whenever a monoculture gets too large, diseases, caused by parasites, move in and curtail it.
Had I not been absent from the field of parasitology for three decades, I would never have seen this vision. It was truly a Eureka moment!
Here is a list, in chronological order, of my publications about parasites.

Windsor DA Colpoda steinii and Tetrahymena limacis in several terrestrial pulmonate gastropods collected in Illinois. Journal of Protozoology 1959 Aug; 6(Suppl): 33 #135.
Windsor DA Studies on the in vitro biology of Tetrahymena limacis. MS Thesis, Department of Zoology, University of Illinois, Urbana. 1960. 87 pages.
Windsor DA Morphological changes exhibited by Tetrahymena limacis upon isolation from three newly discovered hosts. Journal of Protozoology 1960; 7(Suppl): 111.
Kruidenier FJ ; Windsor DA Pigment of Paragonimus kellicotti Ward, 1908. Journal of Parasitology 1964; 50(Suppl): 53 #129.
Kruidenier FJ ; Windsor DA The development of Paragonimus kellicotti Ward, 1908. In: Corradetti A, Editor Proceedings of the First International Congress of Parasitology. (Rome, Sep 21-26, 1964) Pergamon Press, NY. 1966. 2: 825-6.
Windsor DA Heavenly hosts. ["Equal rights for parasites!"] Nature 1990 Nov 8; 348(6297): 104.
Windsor DA Guest Editorial. Equal rights for parasites. Conservation Biology 1995 Feb; 9(1): 1-2.
Windsor DA Endangered interrelationships; the ecological cost of parasites lost. Wild Earth 1995-96 Winter; 5(4): 78-83.
Windsor DA Stand up for parasites. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 1997 Jan; 12(1): 32.
Windsor DA Equal rights for parasites. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 1997 Winter; 40(2): 222-229.
Windsor DA From pearls to perils - the imperiled freshwater clams. Wild Earth 1997 Spring; 7(1): 31-35.
Windsor DA The basic unit of evolution is the host-symbiont "biocartel". Evolutionary Theory 1997 Aug; 11(4): 275.
Windsor DA Equal rights for parasites. BioScience 1998 Apr; 48(4):244.
Windsor DA Most of the species on Earth are parasites. International Journal for Parasitology 1998 December; 28(12): 1939-1941.
Windsor DA. Are all mass invasions alike? Trends in Ecology & Evolution 2000 June; 15(6): 248-249.
Windsor DA Spraying wrong way to curb West Nile Virus. Press & Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, NY) 2000 September 6 Wednesday; 15(342): 9A.
Windsor DA Disease, trees, and monopolies. Communicator (Three Rivers Project of the Heartland Bioregion) 2001 May; 9(10): 2.
Windsor DA Book review of: Zimmer C. Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizzare World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures. NY: Free Press. 2000. 298 pages. Science Books & Films 2001 May-June; 37(3): 106.
Windsor DA Sickamores. Communicator (Three Rivers Project of the Heartland Bioregion) 2001 July; 10(1): 2.
Windsor DA Bluebird trails = pathogen pathways. New York Birders 2003 January; 32(1)(135): 9.
Windsor DA Parasites rule. New Scientist 2004 April 24; 182(2444): 32.
Windsor DA Leidy's legacy [Ecological role of anthrax] Natural History 2005 October; 115(8): 10,66.
Windsor D [Symbionts in resurrected extinct mammals.] New Scientist 2009 February 7; 201(2694): 26-27.
Windsor D Microbes on Mars. New Scientist 2013 July 27; 219(2927): 32.