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Driven to the drink of self-pickling by parasites.
February 21, 2012 9:10 PM   Subscribe

A recent paper* documents a previously undocumented strategy, fraught with human psychological parallels, of a potentially adaptive mechanism against parasitism: self-medication via alcohol intoxication.

Parasitic wasps prey on many species of insects, and many wasps have become quite specialized to their hosts. They have long been a source of insight, revulsion and moral sustenance to evolutionary biologists. Darwin himself wrote " I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ§ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars…
Furthermore, as seen in many host-parasite interactions, the balance between host-defense and parasitism has led to some interesting evolutionary avenues of defensive strategy and offensive co-options.

But don't worry, it's parasites all the way down.

*Figures only at this point, for non subscribed persons...to synopsize: Parasites do not fare well in larvae that have been reared on high alcoholic (4-6%) food. D. melanogaster is quite well adapted to such boozy conditions and has high survival rates with or without parasites. An interesting twist comes in with the comparison in survival rates between a generalist (takes any fly larva what looks ripe for laying) parasitoid species vs. a specialist (goes after Drosophila more specifically). The generalist is more vulnerable to the ethanol whereas the specialist is slightly more resistant. Thus, even the most understandable self-medication strategies are counteracted by devoted parasites.

§ also:Ichnueumon wasp with David Attenborough narration.

more videos upon request, however the squick factor is exceedingly high.
posted by Cold Lurkey (37 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
So this is why I'm drunk so often?
posted by symbioid at 9:15 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


This was on Quirks and Quarks this week (scroll down).
posted by maudlin at 9:18 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


“As far as I can tell, no one’s ever tested whether we humans can make life hard for our bloodborne pathogens by getting our blood alcohol levels up,”

I've tested that. Plenty of times. I haven't analyzed the data yet, because I want to do more testing this weekend.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:21 PM on February 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


This is actually how my dad deals with colds and flus: copious application of a nice cognac, repeat until cured or deceased. I just found this out over the holidays and am struggling to integrate it into my worldview. My mild-mannered pop apparently has some traits that are decidedly of the grizzled-old-sea-captain school.
posted by troublesome at 9:27 PM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


As far as I can tell, no one’s ever tested whether we humans can make life hard for our bloodborne pathogens by getting our blood alcohol levels up,

While not the alcohol perse, there is however the anti-malarial properties of wormwood, better known as the active ingredient thujone, in absinthe. As well as quinine, the black-light active ingredient in tonic, most often consumed in gin and tonics.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:29 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


From the Wikipedia notes on The African Queen:

The cast and crew endured sickness, and spartan living conditions during their time on location. In one scene, Hepburn was playing a piano but had a bucket nearby because she was often sick between takes. Bogart later bragged that he was the only one to escape illness, which he credited to not drinking any water on location, but instead fortifying himself from the large supply of whiskey he had brought along with him.
posted by basicchannel at 9:31 PM on February 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Can one drink fruit flies? (Asking for a friend.)
posted by cjorgensen at 9:32 PM on February 21, 2012


Reminds me of some rather poor advice I've offered to an unfortunate number of people: "The best way to fight what ails you is to make your body inhospitable to foreign organisms." Odd that I have yet to be thanked.
posted by rube goldberg at 9:32 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Alcohol helps fight back the most pernicious parasite undermining the machine genes have built to walk around and reproduce with - reflective consciousness.
posted by phrontist at 9:33 PM on February 21, 2012 [9 favorites]


I lived next door to a bar for a year, and spent that year drunker than any other in my life, but never got sick. /anecdata
posted by LionIndex at 9:47 PM on February 21, 2012


So this is why I'm drunk so often?

No, that's living in Madison Wisconsin.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:48 PM on February 21, 2012 [10 favorites]


Is it "drink a cold and smoke a fever" or the other way around.
posted by birdherder at 9:52 PM on February 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


Can one drink fruit flies? (Asking for a friend.)

Nah, it's too hard to get them into
the juicer.
posted by ook at 10:09 PM on February 21, 2012


So what you're saying is, I drink excessively *because* I've got bugs under my skin, not that the excessive drinking makes me *believe* I've got bugs under my skin?

Thank fuck for that.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:52 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


“As far as I can tell, no one’s ever tested whether we humans can make life hard for our bloodborne pathogens by getting our blood alcohol levels up,”

When I get a cold, I drink a few beers, have a hot bath and go to bed early. Most times, I feel OK enough the next day.

My wife takes nyquil or some shit, and she's toast.

But then, I too, live in Madison WI.

But so does she.

What were we talking about ?
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:57 PM on February 21, 2012


Actually, historically drinking alchohol was considered healthy. Since water-born parasites don't live to well in beer, as opposed to water it probably was really healthy for people in history.

Asians are much more likely to suffer from Alchohol flush reaction, and I seem to recall hearing* that alchohol as a way to avoid health problems with unclean water was more popular in Europe, so it may way be that some groups of humans really did evolve to be more alcohol tolerant as a way to survive (similar to lactose tolerance as way to survive due to being able to drink cow's milk)

*What do I mean when I say "recall hearing"? I was just reminded of this quote from Neal Stephenson: "Every culture can be kind of defined by what they drink in order to avoid dying of diarrhea. In China it's tea. In Africa it's milk or animal blood. In Europe it was wine and beer." Random synchronicity: When I was looking for the exact text of the quote, I actually turned up this metafilter thread
posted by delmoi at 11:49 PM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Stephenson apparently mentioned it again in Reamde, or at least the tea part.
posted by delmoi at 11:49 PM on February 21, 2012


A Scotch a day keeps the doctor away!
posted by XhaustedProphet at 12:06 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Asians are much more...

Not the Koreans though. They're the Irish of East, complete with North and South.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 12:46 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Since water-born parasites don't live to well in beer, as opposed to water

Don't forget the effect of CO2 in water - the acid isn't helpful either....
posted by rough ashlar at 1:22 AM on February 22, 2012


Nice bit of research (Todd Schlenke, not twoleftfeet ; ).

An excerpt from the book Parasite Rex, which is pretty fantastic if you are at all interested in the subject.
The ancient Egpytians and Chinese prescribed different sorts of plants to destroy worms that lived in the gut. The Koran tells its readers to stay away from pigs and from stagnant water, both sources of parasites. For the most part, though, this ancient knowledge has only left a shadow on history. The quivering strings of flesh -- now known as guinea worms -- may have been the fiery serpents that the Bible describes plaguing the Israelites in the desert. They certainly plagued much of Asia and Africa. They couldn't be yanked out at one go, since they would snap in two and the remnant inside the body would die and cause a fatal infection. The universal cure for guinea worm was to rest for a week, slowly winding the worm turn by turn onto a stick to keep it alive until it had crawled free. Someone figured out this cure, someone forgotten now for perhaps thousands of years. But it may be that that person's invention was remembered in the symbol of medicine, known as the caduceus: two serpents wound around a staff.
Between that book and 'Small Wonders: How Microbes Rule the World' by Ida Ben-Barak I have had to completely re-evaluate my understanding of what normal, healthy and natural means.
posted by asok at 2:43 AM on February 22, 2012 [9 favorites]


I've long joked that I just drink my infections into submission. It'd be interesting to see any actual papers about it.
posted by lucidium at 3:31 AM on February 22, 2012


I consider my frontal lobe to be a parasite. So yes to fine high alcohol content Belgian beers!
posted by srboisvert at 4:17 AM on February 22, 2012


A Scotch a day keeps the doctor away!

Not my doctor. If he hears there's a good scotch about, he'll be there, and he'll bring a full flask for trading.

It's the little things.
posted by eriko at 5:01 AM on February 22, 2012


Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.

--Augustus de Morgan
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:38 AM on February 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


The quivering strings of flesh -- now known as guinea worms

Damn, why did I have to go and look that up. Also, obligatory Dave Allen priest's sermon on the evils of whiskey joke.
posted by kersplunk at 5:41 AM on February 22, 2012


Another great resource for learning about the health benefits of various drinks and how they contributed to the rise of civilization(s) is the book A History of the World in 6 Glasses.
posted by postel's law at 6:07 AM on February 22, 2012


Brandy may not kill the infection, but it makes me feel better about having it.
posted by arcticseal at 6:29 AM on February 22, 2012


Can't find a citation online, but friends who live in Jakarta have said that the early Dutch colonists were perpetually hammered on gin because it was considered medicinal. (Jenever, Dutch gin, was sold as a medicine in the 16th Century.) The tropical climate was hard on European immigrants and many died of disease within a few years of arrival. Gin seemed to help ward off illness, perhaps killing microbes by a good soak in a stomach full of alcohol, or maybe the drinkers just became oblivious to their problems. Either way, gin was big business: in 1792 the Dutch Republic exported 11.5 million liters of jenever, with Dutch colonies being a major market.
posted by Quietgal at 6:41 AM on February 22, 2012


It might not be just parasites; there were very old experiments (I think it was the Soviets) where cancer tumors were injected with ethyl alcohol in hopes of a cure. Unfortunately there was no determining a safe level because often the recipient would die when the tumor necrosed.
posted by Renoroc at 6:54 AM on February 22, 2012


Great fleas drink little drinks upon attacks, and so ad infinitum
And little fleas have little flasks, the better with to spike 'em.

--Augustus de Morgan, ish.
posted by metaculpa at 7:09 AM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I heard this on NPR yesterday afternoon and when I got home and started to tell my wife she interrupted to say she already knew all about this and went into some detail, despite not having heard the segment. She is not a scientist. She just always knows awesome things. That is why I love her.
posted by freecellwizard at 7:39 AM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can't believe nobody's quoted this passage from the second link, so I'll do it as a public service:
Dr. Schlenke discovered they suffered a hideous death: Each wasp’s internal organs had shot out of its anus. “All their guts are outside the wasps,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain that.”
posted by languagehat at 8:46 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: All their guts are outside the wasps
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:01 AM on February 22, 2012


This post resulted in an awful google search results page. Thanks
posted by crayz at 1:17 PM on February 22, 2012


rough ashlar writes "Don't forget the effect of CO2 in water - the acid isn't helpful either...."

Carbonation in beer is fairly recent. It's unlikely we've evolved anything to take advantage of it yet.
posted by Mitheral at 5:22 PM on February 22, 2012


This was actually covered in an Angel episode.
posted by puckupdate at 4:29 PM on February 23, 2012


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