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Worm parasites - just that term can make some people squirm. Worm infections continue to be a major source of diseases in people and livestock around the world, which leads many people to try to avoid them. But the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History is actually doing the opposite. The museum has amassed millions of worms in a national parasite collection. Who knew? NPR's Jason Beaubien recently stopped by for a visit.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Anna Phillips is surrounded by worms, millions of worms. They're stored in a hodgepodge of glass bottles stacked floor-to-ceiling on rolling shelves behind her. The shelves are similar to the stacks of a university library or the vault of a data storage company.
ANNA PHILLIPS: So I think this - maybe this whole shelf is all human parasites.
BEAUBIEN: Some bottles hold a single worm floating in a formaldehyde solution. Other jars are packed with dozens of fleshy roundworms, balls of stringy specimens that look like angel hair pasta or masses of dull tapeworms.
PHILLIPS: Right now, we're at the museum support center in Suitland, Md. And we are in one of the pods that contains the Invertebrate Zoology collections. And this is where the parasite collection is.
BEAUBIEN: Anna Philips is a research zoologist with the National Museum of Natural History. This building is a far cry from the Smithsonian's grand museums on the National Mall. It's a nondescript warehouse across from a generic gas station and a liquor store on the outskirts of D.C. This giant windowless room or pod, as Phillips calls it, feels like a bunker.
PHILLIPS: These are some of the older specimens in the collection. You can tell by looking at the jars. Some of them have these brown glass tops. Some have these, like, metal brackets holding the lid on. A lot of them look like canning jars.
BEAUBIEN: The oldest worm in the collection is from 1809.
PHILLIPS: Let's see.
BEAUBIEN: There's a jar of roundworms from a zebra that was being imported by the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1911. There's a Guinea worm removed from a man in New York City in 1901.
PHILLIPS: This looks like it was collected in Washington D.C. from - it looks like a deer. And it was collected in 1894.
BEAUBIEN: The jar is filled with a yellow liquid. And a whitish hunk of meat with stringy worms dangling out of it is plunked down in the bottom.
PHILLIPS: So yeah, so this is actually pretty common from a lot of the specimens in the collection where we have sort of a chunk of tissue and then inside that they've left the parasites exactly where they are. So rather than actually pulling out each individual one it may be quicker just to pull out the big chunk of tissue.
BEAUBIEN: This archive used to be curated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And it's dominated by parasites of livestock and wildlife. Phillips says the original purpose of the collection was to scout for the next looming human disease...
PHILLIPS: Because about 60 percent of diseases in humans are - have a zoonotic origin. They come from animals. And so it's that intersection between humans and livestock, especially in wildlife, that we really learn about what kind of infections humans can get. So the parasite collection has predominantly parasites of wildlife.
BEAUBIEN: The Smithsonian took over the collection last year. While it isn't open to the public, it is open to researchers. Phillips says this allows academics to compare samples they've collected in the field with parasites gathered 50, 100, even 200 years ago. The archive can help scientists spot changes both in the worms and in their hosts. And she says the repository shows the incredible diversity of worms in the world all around us.
PHILLIPS: When you think about worms, most people think of earthworms. But there's actually lots of different worms that live in the ocean, there's many different kinds of earthworms, there's leeches. There's many different kinds of roundworms, flatworms. Flukes is another kind of worm - thorny-headed worms, acanthocephalans.
BEAUBIEN: And then there are all the other worms out there, she says, that haven't yet been discovered. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Washington.
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