Archive for the ‘IMMUNE SYSTEM’ Tag

VIRUSES   Leave a comment

DEFINITION:1 orig., venom, as of a snake 2 a) any of a kingdom (Virus) of prokaryotes, usually ultra microscopic, that consist of nucleic acid, either RNA or DNA, within a case of protein: they infect animals, plants, and bacteria and can reproduce only within living cells so that they are considered as being either living organisms or inert chemicals b) a disease caused by a virus 3 anything that corrupts or poisons the mind or character; evil or harmful influence 4 an unauthorized, disruptive set of instructions placed in a computer program, that leaves copies of itself in other programs and disks.

1981: US AIDS diagnosed. A new fatal, infectious disease was diagnosed in 1981. Called Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), it began appearing in major cities among homosexual men and intravenous drug users. Other high-risk groups were haemophiliacs and other recipients of blood or blood products, babies born of AIDS-infected women, bisexual men, and prostitutes and their customers. AIDS was soon recognized as a worldwide health emergency: a fatal disease with no known cure that quickly became an epidemic. It was especially widespread in Africa, the apparent land of its origin.

By 1983 the virus that causes the disease had been isolated. Some medicines, notably AZT (azidothymidine), slowed the disease’s progress for a few months or more; but the spread of AIDS continued relentlessly, with more than 3,000 new cases being reported each month by 1991.

The federal government had committed more than 1.6 billion dollars to research, while the homosexual community and other special interest groups sought more federal funding and greater assistance from the health insurance industry. Educational programs on safe sexual practices, such as the use of condoms, seemed the best means of slowing the epidemic. Meanwhile, more than 70,000 persons in the United States had died from AIDS by the end of the decade.

1981: WORLD AIDS identified. A strange, new, and deadly disease made its appearance in 1980. Physicians in such large cities as Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco noticed that homosexual men were dying from rare lung infections or from a cancer known as Kaposi’s sarcoma. By 1981 the disease was identified and given a name: AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.

The virus that causes AIDS, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), was identified by Dr. Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute in Paris in research done during the years 1981-84. The results of Dr. Montagnier’s studies were released in 1984. Since its discovery, AIDS has become one of the world’s major health problems. Within certain populations it has become an epidemic: male homosexuals, haemophiliacs, and intravenous drug users in the United States, for example, and heterosexual men and women in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many people were infected through blood transfusions before HIV screening was introduced. An individual infected with the virus may not show the symptoms of AIDS for several years, but the condition is eventually fatal.

The search for a successful vaccine was pursued in laboratories around the world, with no success by the early 1990s. Meanwhile, the disease continued to spread to different parts of the world. Already rife in the United States, Europe, and sub-Saharan Africa by the mid-1980s, it quickly spread to Central and East Asia. The disease also began to spread to larger portions of the heterosexual community throughout the world.

The composition of a virus is relatively simple, and its size is extremely small. It cannot even properly be called an organism because it is unable to carry on life processes outside a living cell of an animal, plant, or bacteria. Yet its method of entering and “enslaving” a living cell is so ingenious that the virus is humankind’s deadliest enemy and resists the most advanced efforts of modern science to eliminate it.

Millions of people throughout the world suffer each year from viral diseases such as polio, measles, chicken pox, mumps, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), and the common cold. Viruses also produce such illnesses as foot-and-mouth disease in livestock, distemper in dogs, panleukopenia in cats, and hog cholera. The viruses that infect bacteria are called bacteriophages.

Structure and Composition

Nucleic acid, any of substances comprising genetic material of living cells; divided into two classes: RNA (ribonucleic acid) and DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid); directs protein synthesis and is vehicle for transmission of genetic information from parent to offspring.

Viruses are exceedingly small; they range in size from about 0.02 to 0.25 micron in diameter (1 micron = 0.000039 inch). By contrast, the smallest bacteria are about 0.4 micron in size. As observed with an electron microscope, some viruses are rod-shaped, others are roughly spherical, and still others have complex shapes consisting of a multi sided “head” and a cylindrical “tail.” A virus consists of a core of nucleic acid surrounded by a protein coat called a capsid; some viruses also have an outer envelope composed of fatty materials and proteins. The nucleic-acid core is the essential part of the virus it carries the virus’s genes. The core consists of either deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or ribonucleic acid (RNA), substances that are essential to the transmission of hereditary information. The protein capsid protects the nucleic acid and may contain molecules that enable the virus to enter the host cell that is, the living cell infected by the virus.

Cycle and Patterns of Infection

Outside of a living cell, a virus is a dormant particle. It exhibits none of the characteristics generally associated with life namely, reproduction and metabolic processes such as growth and assimilation of food. Unlike bacteria and other micro-organisms, viruses remain dormant in body fluids. Thus, great numbers of viruses may be present in a body and yet not produce a disease because they have not invaded the body’s cells. Once inside a host cell, however, the virus becomes an active entity capable of taking over the infected cell’s metabolic machinery. The cellular metabolism becomes so altered that it helps to produce thousands of new viruses.

The virus’s developmental cycle begins when it succeeds in introducing its nucleic acid, and in some cases its protein coat, into a host cell. Bacteriophages attach to the surface of the bacterium and then penetrate the rigid cell wall, transmitting the viral nucleic acid into the host. Animal viruses enter host cells by a process called endocytosis. Plant viruses enter through wounds in the cell’s outer coverings through abrasions made by wind, for example, or through punctures made by insects.

Virion, an entire virus particle the extracellular infective form of a virus consisting of an outer protein shell (capsid) and an inner core of nucleic acid (either ribonucleic or deoxyribonucleic acid); in some, the capsid further enveloped by a fatty membrane.

Once inside the host cell, the virus’s genes usually direct the cell’s production of new viral protein and nucleic acid. These components are then assembled into new, complete, infective virus particles called virions, which are then discharged from the host cell to infect other cells.

In the case of bacteriophages, the new virions are usually released by bursting the host cell a process called lysing, which kills the cell. Sometimes, however, bacteriophages form a stable association with the host cell. The virus’s genes are incorporated into the host cell’s genes, replicate as the cell’s genes replicate, and when the cell divides, the viral genes are passed on to the two new cells.

In such cases no virions are produced, and the infecting virus seems to disappear. Its genes, however, are being passed on to each new generation of cells that stem from the original host cell. These cells remain healthy and continue to grow unless, as happens occasionally, something triggers the latent viral genes to become active. When this happens, the normal cycle of viral infection results: the viral genes direct viral replication, the host cell bursts, and the new virions are released. This pattern of infection is called lysogeny.

Closely related to lysogeny is the process known as transduction, whereby a virus carries bacterial genes from one host to another. This transduction process occurs when genes from the original host become incorporated into a virion that subsequently infects another bacterium.

Viral infections of plant and animal cells resemble those of bacterial cells in many ways. The release of new virions from plant and animal cells does not, however, always involve the bursting of the host cell as it does in bacteria. Particularly among animal viruses, the new virions may be released by budding off from the cell membrane, a process that does not necessarily kill the host cell.

In general, a viral infection produces one of four effects in a plant or animal cell: in apparent effect, in which the virus remains dormant in the host cell; cytopathic effect, in which the cell dies; hyperplastic effect, in which the cell is stimulated to divide before its death; and cell transformation, in which the cell is stimulated to divide, take on abnormal growth patterns, and become cancerous.

Cold sore (or fever blister, or Herpes simplex), a virus infection of the borders of the mouth, lips and nose, or genitals; marked by watery blisters; may be due to illness, emotional upset, or other stress.

Viral infections in animals can be localized or can spread to various parts of the body. Some animal viruses produce latent infections: the virus remains dormant much of the time but becomes active periodically. This is the case with the herpes simplex viruses that cause cold sores.

Natural Defences, Immunization, Treatment

Fever, a condition in which the body temperature rises above normal.

Animals have a number of natural defences that may be triggered by a viral infection. Fever is a general response; many viruses are inactivated at temperatures just slightly above the host’s normal body temperature. Another general response of infected animal cells is the secretion of a protein called interferon. Interferon inhibits the reproduction of viruses in non infected cells.

Fever and interferon production are general responses to infection by any virus. In addition, humans and other vertebrates can mount an immunological attack against a specific virus. The immune system produces antibodies and sensitized cells that are tailor-made to neutralize the infecting virus. These immune defenders circulate through the body long after the virus has been neutralized, thereby providing long-term protection against reinfection by that virus.

Such long-term immunity is the basis for active immunization against viral diseases. A weakened or inactivated strain of an infectious virus is introduced into the body. This virus does not provoke an active disease state, but it does stimulate the production of immune cells and antibodies, which then protect against subsequent infection by the virulent form of the virus.

Active immunizations are routine for such viral diseases as measles, mumps, poliomyelitis, and rubella. In contrast, passive immunization is the injection of antibodies from the serum of an individual who has already been exposed to the virus. Passive immunization is used to give short-term protection to individuals who have been exposed to such viral diseases as measles and hepatitis. It is useful only if provided soon after exposure, before the virus has become widely disseminated in the body.

The treatment of an established viral infection usually is restricted to relieving specific symptoms. There are few drugs that can be used to combat a virus directly. The reason for this is that viruses use the machinery of living cells for reproduction. Consequently, drugs that inhibit viral development also inhibit the functions of the host cell. Nonetheless, a small number of antiviral drugs are available for specific infections.

The most successful controls over viral diseases are epidemiological. For example, large-scale active immunization programs can break the chain of transmission of a viral disease. Worldwide immunization is credited with the eradication of smallpox, once one of the most feared viral diseases. Because many viruses are carried from host to host by insects or contaminated food, insect control and hygienic food handling can help eliminate a virus from specific populations.

History of Virus Research

Historic descriptions of viral diseases date back as far as the 10th century BC. The concept of the virus, however, was not established until the last decade of the 19th century, when several researchers obtained evidence that agents far smaller than bacteria were capable of causing infectious diseases.

Mosaic disease, highly infectious virus disease affecting many plants including cucumber, potato, tomato, bean, and turnip; dwarfs growth and mottles leaves.

The existence of viruses was finally proved when bacteriophages were discovered by independent researchers in 1915 and 1917. The question of whether viruses are actually micro-organisms (similar to very tiny bacteria) was resolved in 1935, when the virus responsible for causing mosaic disease in tobacco was isolated and crystallized; the fact that it could be crystallized proved that the virus was not a cellular organism.

Bacteriophages are a valuable research tool for molecular biologists. Studies of bacteriophages have helped to illuminate such basic biological processes as genetic recombination, nucleic-acid replication, and protein synthesis.

IMMUNE SYSTEM   Leave a comment

DEFINITION: the system that protects the body from disease by producing antibodies.

All living organisms are continuously exposed to substances that are capable of causing them harm. Most organisms protect themselves against such substances in more than one way with physical barriers, for example, or with chemicals that repel or kill invaders. Animals with backbones, called vertebrates, have these types of general protective mechanisms, but they also have a more advanced protective system called the immune system. The immune system is a complex network of organs containing cells that recognize foreign substances in the body and destroy them. It protects vertebrates against pathogens, or infectious agents, such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other parasites. The human immune system is the most complex and is the focus of this article.

Although there are many potentially harmful pathogens, no pathogen can invade or attack all organisms because a pathogen’s ability to cause harm requires a susceptible victim, and not all organisms are susceptible to the same pathogens. For instance, the virus that causes AIDS in humans does not infect animals such as dogs, cats, and mice. Similarly, humans are not susceptible to the viruses that cause canine distemper, feline leukaemia, and mouse pox.

Two Kinds of Immunity

All animals possess a primitive system of defence against the pathogens to which they are susceptible. This defence is called innate, or natural, immunity and includes two parts. One part, called humoral innate immunity, involves a variety of substances found in the humors, or body fluids. These substances interfere with the growth of pathogens or clump them together so that they can be eliminated from the body. The other part, called cellular innate immunity, is carried out by cells called phagocytes that ingest and degrade, or “eat,” pathogens and by so-called natural killer cells that destroy certain cancerous cells. Innate immunity is non-specific that is, it is not directed against specific invaders but against any pathogens that enter the body.

Antigen, a substance in blood that causes production of antibodies against itself.

Only vertebrates have an additional and more sophisticated system of defence mechanisms, called adaptive immunity, that can recognize and destroy specific substances. The defensive reaction of the adaptive immune system is called the immune response. Any substance capable of generating such a response is called an antigen, or immunogen. Antigens are not the foreign micro-organisms and tissues themselves; they are substances such as toxins or enzymes in the micro-organisms or tissues that the immune system considers foreign. Immune responses are normally directed against the antigen that provoked them and are said to be antigen-specific. Specificity is one of the two properties that distinguish adaptive immunity from innate immunity. The other is called immunologic memory. Immunologic memory is the ability of the adaptive immune system to mount a stronger and more effective immune response against an antigen after its first encounter with that antigen, leaving the organism better able to resist it in the future.

Adaptive immunity works with innate immunity to provide vertebrates with a heightened resistance to micro-organisms, parasites, and other intruders that could harm them. However, adaptive immunity is also responsible for allergic reactions and for the rejection of transplanted tissue, which it may mistake for a harmful foreign invader.

Lymphocytes Heart of the Immune System

Antigen, a substance in blood that causes production of antibodies against itself.

Lymphocytes a class of white blood cells are the principal active components of the adaptive immune system. The other components are antigen-presenting cells, which trap antigens and bring them to the attention of lymphocytes so that they can mount their attack.

How lymphocytes recognize antigens. A lymphocyte is different from all other cells in the body because it has about 100,000 identical receptors on its cellular membrane that enable it to recognize one specific antigen. The receptors are proteins containing grooves that fit into patterns formed by the atoms of the antigen molecule somewhat like a key fitting into a lock so that the lymphocyte can bind to the antigen. There are more than 10 million different types of grooves in the lymphocytes of the human immune system.

When an antigen invades the body, normally only those lymphocytes with receptors that fit the contours of that particular antigen take part in the immune response. When they do, so-called daughter cells are generated that have receptors identical to those found on the original lymphocytes. The result is a family of lymphocytes, called a lymphocyte clone, with identical antigen-specific receptors.

A clone continues to grow after lymphocytes first encounter an antigen so that, if the same type of antigen invades the body a second time, there will be many more lymphocytes specific for that antigen ready to meet the invader. This is a crucial component of immunologic memory.

How lymphocytes are made. Like all blood cells, lymphocytes are made from stem cells in the bone marrow. (In foetuses, or unborn offspring, lymphocytes are made in the liver.) Lymphocytes then undergo a second stage of development, or processing, in which they acquire their antigen-specific receptors. By chance, some lymphocytes are created with receptors that happen to be specific to normal, healthy components of the body. Fortunately, a healthy immune system purges itself of these lymphocytes, leaving only lymphocytes that ignore normal body components but react to foreign intruders. If this purging process is not completely successful, the result is an autoimmune (literally “self-immune”) disease in which the immune system attacks normal components of the body as though they were foreign antigens, destroying healthy molecules, cells, or tissues.

Some lymphocytes are processed in the bone marrow and then migrate to other areas of the body specifically the lymphoid organs. These lymphocytes are called B lymphocytes, or B cells (for bone-marrow-derived cells). Other lymphocytes move from the bone marrow and are processed in the thymus, a pyramid-shaped lymphoid organ located immediately beneath the breastbone at the level of the heart. These lymphocytes are called T lymphocytes, or T cells (for thymus-derived cells).

These two types of lymphocytes B cells and T cells play different roles in the immune response, though they may act together and influence one another’s functions. The part of the immune response that involves B cells is often called humoral immunity because it takes place in the body fluids. The part involving T cells is called cellular immunity because it takes place directly between the T cells and the antigens. This distinction is misleading, however, because, strictly speaking, all adaptive immune responses are cellular that is, they are all initiated by cells (the lymphocytes) reacting to antigens.

Antibody, the protective substance produced in body fluids in response to exposure to foreign antigen in blood.

B cells may initiate an immune response, but the triggering antigens are actually eliminated by soluble products that the B cells release into the blood and other body fluids. These products are called antibodies and belong to a special group of blood proteins called immunoglobulins. When a B cell is stimulated by an antigen that it encounters in the body fluids, it transforms, with the aid of a type of T cell called a helper T cell, into a larger cell called a blast cell. The blast cell begins to divide rapidly, forming a clone of identical cells.

Some of these transform further into plasma cells in essence, antibody-producing factories. These plasma cells produce a single type of antigen-specific antibody at a rate of about 2,000 antibodies per second. The antibodies then circulate through the body fluids, attacking the triggering antigen.

Antibodies attack antigens by binding to them. Some antibodies attach themselves to invading micro-organisms and render them immobile or prevent them from penetrating body cells. In other cases, the antibodies act together with a group of blood proteins, collectively called the complement system, that consists of at least 30 different components. In such cases, antibodies coat the antigen and make it subject to a chemical chain reaction with the complement proteins. The complement reaction either can cause the invader to burst or can attract scavenger cells that “eat” the invader.

Not all of the cells from the clone formed from the original B cell transform into antibody-producing plasma cells; some serve as so-called memory cells. These closely resemble the original B cell, but they can respond more quickly to a second invasion by the same antigen than can the original cell.

T cells. There are two major classes of T cells produced in the thymus: helper T cells and cytotoxic, or killer, T cells. Helper T cells secrete molecules called interleukins (abbreviated IL) that promote the growth of both B and T cells. The interleukins that are secreted by lymphocytes are also called lymphokines. The interleukins that are secreted by other kinds of blood cells called monocytes and macrophages are called monokines. Some ten different interleukins are known: IL-1, IL-2, IL-3, IL-4, IL-5, IL-6, IL-7, interferon, lymphotoxin, and tumour necrosis factor. Each interleukin has complex biological effects.

Cytotoxic T cells destroy cells infected with viruses and other pathogens and may also destroy cancerous cells. Cytotoxic T cells are also called suppressor lymphocytes because they regulate immune responses by suppressing the function of helper cells so that the immune system is active only when necessary.

The receptors of T cells are different from those of B cells because they are “trained” to recognize fragments of antigens that have been combined with a set of molecules found on the surfaces of all the body’s cells. These molecules are called MHC molecules (for major histocompatibility complex). As T cells circulate through the body, they scan the surfaces of body cells for the presence of foreign antigens that have been picked up by the MHC molecules. This function is sometimes called immune surveillance.

Immune Response

When an antigen enters the body, it may be partly neutralized by components of the innate immune system. It may be attacked by phagocytes or by preformed antibodies that act together with the complement system. Often, however, the lymphocytes of the adaptive immune system are brought into play.

The human immune system contains approximately 1 trillion T cells and 1 trillion B cells, located in the lymphoid organs and in the blood, plus approximately 10 billion antigen-presenting cells located in the lymphoid organs. To maximize the chances of encountering antigens wherever they may invade the body, lymphocytes continually circulate between the blood and certain lymphoid tissues. A given lymphocyte spends an average of 30 minutes per day in the blood and recirculates about 50 times per day between the blood and lymphoid tissues.

If lymphocytes encounter an antigen trapped by the antigen-presenting cells of the lymphoid organs, lymphocytes with receptors specific to that antigen stop their migration and settle to mount an immune response locally. As these lymphocytes accumulate in the affected lymphoid tissue, the tissue often becomes enlarged for example, the lymph nodes in the groin become enlarged if there is an infection in the thigh area.

Antigen-presenting cells degrade antigens and often eliminate them without the help of lymphocytes. If there are too many antigens for them to handle alone, however, the antigen-presenting cells secrete IL-1 and display fragments of the antigens (combined with MHC molecules) to alert the helper T cells. The IL-1 facilitates the responsiveness of T and B cells to antigens and, if released in large amounts (as it is in the course of infections), can also cause fever and drowsiness. Helper T cells that encounter IL-1 and fragments of antigens transform into cells called lymphoblasts, which then secrete a variety of interleukins that are essential to the success of the immune response. The IL-2 produced by helper T cells promotes the growth of cytotoxic T cells, which may be necessary to destroy tumorous cells or cells infected with viruses. The IL-3 increases the production of blood cells in the bone marrow and thus helps to maintain an adequate supply of the lymphocytes and lymphocyte products necessary to fight infections. Helper T cells also secrete interleukins that act on B cells, stimulating them to divide and to transform into antibody-secreting plasma cells. The antibodies then perform their part of the immune function.

The process of inducing an immune response is called immunization. It may be either natural through infection by a pathogen or artificial through the use of serums or vaccines. The heightened resistance acquired when the body responds to infection is called active immunity. Passive immunity results when the antibodies from an actively immunized individual are transferred to a second, non immune subject. Active immunization, whether natural or artificial, is longer-lasting than is passive immunization because it takes advantage of immunologic memory.

Monoclonal Antibodies

Scientists can now produce antibody-secreting cells in the laboratory by a method known as the hybridoma technique. Hybridomas are hybrid cells made by fusing a cancerous, or rapidly reproducing, plasma cell and a normal antibody-producing plasma cell obtained from an animal immunized with a particular antigen. The hybridoma cell can produce large amounts of identical antibodies called monoclonal, or hybridoma, antibodies which have widespread applications in medicine and biology.

Assisted by Jose Quintans, Professor of Pathology and Immunology, University of Chicago, and recipient of the Quantrell Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching.

PARASITES.   Leave a comment

Bed bug

An organism that lives on or within another organism, called the host, and that gains its sustenance from the host organism is known as a parasite. Parasites occur among all the major groups of living things. There are parasitic fishes for example, the lamprey, which attaches itself to other fishes and sucks their body fluids. There are many parasitic arthropods, including fleas, lice, biting flies, and mosquitoes.

Many worms are parasitic. Some live in their host’s digestive tract and feed on the food that passes through. Some attach to the intestinal wall and suck the host’s blood. Some, such as those that cause trichinosis, enter the host through the digestive tract and then burrow into the tissues of the entire body. Some also parasitism plants.

Many fungi are parasitic. The rusts are fungi that are responsible for many diseases of major food plants. Parasitic bacteria are responsible for diseases ranging in severity from acne and tooth decay to such major plagues as the Black Death.

The viruses are unique in that they are all parasitic. They are the smallest of the parasites and may enter the host through the respiratory system or may be spread through sexual contact.


 As originally defined, parasites included any organisms that live by drawing food from a host organism. Defined in this broad way, parasitism included relationships that ranged from benign to harmful and even fatal to the host. The term parasitosis was later developed to describe those forms of parasitism that injure the host, and today the term symbiosis describes benign or even mutually beneficial associations between organisms.

Effects on the host. A parasite’s effect on its host is determined by various factors. Many parasites, for example, do not reproduce in their hosts, or reproduce only to a limited degree. Such parasites, including many parasitic worms, produce eggs that enter another host before they develop. The damage done by such parasites depends in part on the number of parasites in the host, known as the host’s parasite burden. Many hosts can carry a light parasite burden that is, they can support a small number of parasites and suffer no ill effects. A heavy parasite burden, however, may cause severe injury to the host.

In the case of parasites that may undergo unlimited reproduction in their hosts for example, the protozoans, bacteria, and viruses the factors determining the final effect on the host can be quite complicated. The ability of the hosts’ natural defences to destroy the parasites often plays a major role. Very young, old, or weak hosts that have limited defences may be severely harmed by large parasite populations that are able to develop unchecked.

Varieties. Parasites are commonly described in terms of their relationships to their hosts. Parasites that remain on the outer surfaces of their hosts are called ectoparasites. Parasitic arthropods are usually ectoparasites. Endoparasites are parasites that live within the bodies of their hosts. The various parasitic worms that live within the hosts’ digestive tracts are endoparasites. Many endoparasites actually dwell within the tissues of their hosts, not just in the cavities of the hollow organs. The bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the most common cause of human tuberculosis, lives within the cells of the lung tissues.

Bedbug, a small, flat, bloodsucking insect (Cimex lectularius), of reddish-brown colour, of order Hemiptera, family Cimicidae; is parasitic on humans.

Parasites may be permanent or temporary residents in or on their hosts. The bedbug is a temporary parasite. It crawls onto its host to feed and then returns to its hiding place, where it spends most of its life. The flatworm that causes a form of human schistosomiasis is a permanent parasite. Once it enters a host’s body, it remains there until it dies.

Some organisms can live either as parasites or as free-living forms; they are called facultative parasites. For example, the free-living protozoan Naegleria fowleri, which occurs in streams and lakes around the world, can cause infection of the brain after it enters the noses of swimmers. Other organisms, called obligate parasites, can live only a parasitic existence. Plasmodium falciparum, an organism responsible for a form of human malaria, is an obligate parasite.

Autoecious parasites are parasites that complete their life cycles within a single host. Many parasites, however, have quite complex life cycles and may require more than one host. In some cases the immature stages of the parasite develop in one host, and maturation and sexual development occur in a second host. Hosts in which the immature stages of the parasite develop are referred to as intermediate hosts. Parasites that require two or more hosts to complete their life cycles are referred to as heteroecious.

Malaria, disease consisting usually of successive chill, fever, and “intermission” or period of normality.

The pattern of having more than one host can sometimes provide parasites with a means of spreading. The protozoan that causes malaria has two hosts: humans and certain other animals, and anopheles mosquitoes. Asexual reproduction occurs in infected humans and animals, and sexual maturation, fertilization, and reproduction occur in infected mosquitoes. The protozoans depend on the mosquito to transmit them from one human host to another.

Methods of transmission. An organism that transmits a parasite, as the anopheles mosquito does, is called a vector. Vectors need not transmit parasites by biting, however. Some vectors transmit parasites when they are eaten by the hosts. Certain tapeworms that infect cats and dogs use fleas as vectors. When the cat or dog swallows a flea that is caught during grooming, the immature forms of the tapeworm emerge from the flea’s body and mature in the cat’s or dog’s intestine. The mature tapeworm produces numerous eggs that then pass out of the animal’s body with its faeces and contaminate the environment. If an immature, or larval, flea ingests the tapeworm’s eggs as it feeds on the infected faeces, it becomes infected in turn. The parasite’s life cycle is completed if the cat or dog catches and eats the mature infected flea. A situation such as this, in which a parasite (the tapeworm) is parasitic upon another parasite (the flea), is referred to as hyper-parasitism

Human Parasites

Parasitism in humans is widespread, but the type of parasite varies with geographic regions and social conditions. In areas where sanitation is poor, parasites that are spread by ingestion of faecal-contaminated food and water are common. In areas where housing is inadequate, parasitic insects may be common.

In parts of the world with adequate sanitation and housing, parasites transmitted by faecal contamination and biting insects are generally rare, but those transmitted by direct contact and through the respiratory system may still be common. The parasites that cause measles, mumps, and chicken pox, for example, can spread rapidly in crowded school environments.

Plant Parasites

Arthropod, animal of the phylum Arthropoda comprising invertebrates with external skeleton, segmented body, and jointed appendages.

In many respects the parasites of plants are similar to the parasites of animals. The arthropods, fungi, worms, bacteria, and viruses that parasitic plants may either grow on the plant’s surface or invade the plant’s tissues and, in the case of arthropods that suck plant fluids, may also transmit other parasites, particularly viruses.

Some plants have become parasites on other plants. The simplest form of plant parasitism is that in which the parasitic plant uses its host only for support. The strangler fig, a tropical tree that is grown as a common house-plant, slowly surrounds its host tree until the host dies. The fig then has access to the light above the forest canopy and can grow unhindered.

Other parasitic plants, such as the mistletoe, have a somewhat greater dependence on their plant hosts. Mistletoe grows on trees and uses them for support. In addition, though it makes some of its own food, the mistletoe sends modified roots into its host to draw out nutrients.

Dodder, a leafless parasitic plant introduced into U.S. from Europe with clover seeds; now a rapidly growing pest.

The most complete form of plant parasitism is that in which the parasite relies completely on the host for sustenance. Dodder, for example, is a parasitic vine that draws all its nutrients from its host.

Special Types of Parasitism

Entomologists, scientists who study insects, have described a type of parasitism in which one insect, usually a species of wasp, uses another insect to brood its young. This type of parasitism is called parasitoidism. The parasitoid wasp lays its eggs in or on the host insect, commonly a caterpillar. The wasp’s larvae develop inside the host, feeding on its body, and emerge as full-grown adults. Parasitoidism is being used by some farmers as a means of pest control. Various parasitic wasps, for example, are used to help control agricultural pests.

Another unusual form of parasitism is brood parasitism, which is common among certain birds, particularly the cow-bird and the cuckoo. In this form of parasitism, the parasitic bird lays its eggs in the nest of another species. The host bird then raises the intruder’s young as though they were its own.

A type of parasitism called social parasitism occurs among certain communal insects. Some species of ants, for example, kidnap and enslave the workers of other ant species.

Assisted by Julius P. Kreier, Professor of Microbiology, Ohio State University, and author of ‘Parasitic Protozoa’.


The disease known as AIDS is a complicated illness that may involve several phases. It is caused by a virus that can be passed from person to person. AIDS impairs the human body’s immune system the system responsible for warding off disease and leaves the victim susceptible to various infections.

AIDS was first conclusively identified in the United States in 1981, when 189 cases were reported to the Centers for Disease Control. Within a decade the disease had spread to virtually all populated areas of the world. In the United States alone there are about 65,000 new cases every year. The origin of the AIDS virus is uncertain, but it may have originated in Central Africa.

The first AIDS patients in the Americas and Europe were almost exclusively male homosexuals. Later patients included those who used unsterilised intravenous needles to inject illicit drugs; haemophiliacs (persons with a blood-clotting disorder) and others who had received blood transfusions; females whose male sexual partners had AIDS; and the children of such couples. However, since 1989, heterosexual sex was found to be the fastest growing means of transmission of the virus, with 90 percent of new cases originating from heterosexual sex.

Public awareness of the disease gradually built up as high-profile victims began to die: actor Rock Hudson (1985), clothes designer Perry Ellis (1986), choreographer Michael Bennett (1987), photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1989), and Oscar-winning director Tony Richardson (1991). When basketball superstar Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he had contracted the AIDS virus, the feeling spread quickly that anyone, not just particular groups of people, could be at risk. This was again confirmed as tennis legend Arthur Ashe announced in 1992 that he had been infected with the virus for several years.

The AIDS virus. American researchers initially named the virus that causes AIDS the human T-lymphotropic virus, type III or HTLV-III. After researchers discovered in the late 1980s that there were several forms of the AIDS virus, the original virus was renamed the human immunodeficiency virus type 1, or HIV-1.

The virus enters the bloodstream and destroys certain white blood cells, called T lymphocytes, that play a key role in the functioning of the immune system. The virus can also infect other types of cells in the body, including the immune-system cells known as macrophages. Unlike T lymphocytes, however, macrophages are not killed by the virus. In fact, research has suggested that macrophages may carry the AIDS virus to healthy brain cells, to the lymphatic system, and to other healthy cells in the body.

What happens after infection. Most people recently infected by the AIDS virus look and feel healthy. In some people the virus may remain inactive, and these people act as carriers, remaining apparently healthy but still able to infect others. After a few years, some people may develop AIDS-related complex, or ARC. Its symptoms may include fever, fatigue, weight loss, skin rashes, a fungal infection of the mouth known as thrush, lack of resistance to infection, and swollen lymph nodes. Sometimes the symptoms of ARC disappear, but the condition frequently goes on to become AIDS. Though it can take up to 20 years after the virus is contracted for AIDS to fully manifest itself, the average time is one to two years.

The AIDS virus causes so much damage to the immune system that the body becomes susceptible to a variety of opportunistic infections infections that are less harmful to people with normal immune systems but take advantage of the breakdown in an AIDS sufferer’s immune system to produce devastating and eventually lethal diseases. Among the most frequently occurring opportunistic infections are tuberculosis and a type of pneumonia caused by the micro-organism Pneumocystis carinii. AIDS sufferers are also more likely to develop certain tumours, particularly Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. The AIDS virus may also attack the nervous system and cause brain and eye damage. The average life expectancy for an AIDS victim from the onset of symptoms is one to five years.

How AIDS is spread. AIDS is transmitted by direct contamination of the bloodstream with body fluids that contain the AIDS virus, particularly blood and semen from an HIV-infected person. The virus is usually transmitted through various forms of sexual intercourse, the transfusion of virus-contaminated blood, or the sharing of HIV-contaminated intravenous needles.

The AIDS virus cannot penetrate intact bodily surfaces, such as skin, and quickly perishes outside the human body. Consequently, AIDS is not spread by casual physical contact or by sneezing. The virus has been found in tears and saliva, but it exists there in such low concentrations that transmission from these body fluids is extremely rare. There are no known cases of AIDS transmission by insects such as mosquitoes or by domestic animals. Studies show that the virus is usually passed to an infant close to or during delivery, rather than moving across the placenta during pregnancy. Recently infected mothers can transmit the virus to their children via breast milk. The United States Congress approved guidelines recommending that health care workers who perform invasive procedures be tested for the AIDS virus but the testing and disclosure of results would be voluntary; no restrictions would be placed on those who tested positive.

There are several ways to reduce the spread of AIDS through sexual contact. These include practising abstinence no intercourse or practising safe sex. Practising safe sex means either participating only in a monogamous, or mutually exclusive, relationship in which both people are free of HIV infection, or using latex condoms whenever engaging in intercourse.

Detection and treatment. Usually, when the AIDS virus enters the bloodstream, the body’s immune system produces antibodies to battle the micro-organism Blood tests can detect these antibodies and therefore can indicate exposure to the virus. However, these tests occasionally give false readings and only begin to give accurate results within two weeks to three months after infection, during which time an infected person may pass the virus to others. Scientists do not know exactly how the AIDS virus damages the immune system, nor do they understand why the natural antibodies developed to destroy the virus are ineffective.

By 1987 the drug azidothymidine (AZT) had proved effective in slowing the reproduction of the HIV-1 virus in humans, but it is highly toxic and cannot be taken by many patients. In 1989 researchers determined that lower doses of AZT would be effective and less harmful for patients that have early symptoms of AIDS and for children with AIDS. Dideoxyinosine (DDI) was approved in the United States in 1991 for the treatment of HIV infection. This drug is a useful replacement for AZT and is used in children and other patients for whom AZT is too toxic. In 1992 zalcitabine, or DDC, became the third drug approved to treat people infected with the AIDS virus. It was, however, approved for use only in combination with AZT to treat adults with advanced HIV infection.

Several other drugs and treatments have recently been approved or become available experimentally for the treatment of P. carinii pneumonia, Kaposi’s sarcoma, and other AIDS-related conditions. Several vaccines against AIDS are being developed and tested.


Cozic, C.P., and Swisher, Karin, eds. The AIDS Crisis (Greenhaven, 1991).

Hein, Karen, and others. AIDS: Trading Fears for Facts, updated ed. (Consumer Reports Books, 1991).

Tiffany, Jennifer, and others. Talking with Kids About AIDS (Parent AIDS, 1993).