The Ascaris lumbricoides burrowed through Scott Gardner’s intestinal walls to get into his bloodstream where it hitched a ride through his liver and into his heart, which faithfully pumped it into his lungs.
The parasitic nematode didn't stop there.
“It molts and breaks out of the alveoli (the air sacs in the lungs) and crawls up the trachea,” said Gardner, the director of the Harold W. Manter Laboratory of Parisitology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Once it reaches the trachea, the nematode is then “swallowed, traveling back into the small intestine where it grows to an adult.”
Gardner said he is one of a billion people around the world who play host to the worm-like parasite, which can grow to 14 inches long and is spread through contaminated food and water in places with unsanitary conditions.
His nematode is now a museum piece, going on display along with other parasites of all shapes and sizes at the Nebraska State Museum at Morrill Hall.
“Guts and Glory: A Parasite Story,” featuring the work of the Manter Lab and its collection of 90,000 cataloged entries, opens Saturday on the museum’s second floor.
Designed with an “eww, gross factor” in mind, said Mandy Haase-Thomas, the museum’s spokeswoman, the new exhibit is an entry into the vast world of parasites and the people who study them.
Beyond the actual parasites on display -- carefully preserved in glass jars and behind Plexiglas display cases -- the exhibit describes the work of two UNL-trained parasite researchers now at the University of Notre Dame.
Interactive screens take visitors behind the scenes to watch UNL researchers collect and prepare parasite samples for UNL's collection, including a 3-D tour of the Manter Lab.
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Parasites beyond those that affect humans are also featured in the new Morrill Hall exhibit, including hand-built models of various organisms as well as their hosts.
Twisting overhead and leading visitors through the exhibit is a replica of the Hexagonoporus physeteris, a 100-foot-long tapeworm pulled from the belly of a sperm whale.
A concrete pylon mold, covered in spray foam and painted canvas stretched over it to create a skin-like texture, stands in as an oversized model of a coyote intestine infested with a parasite called Echinococcus multilocularis.
Inside the model, which is carpeted pink and ribbed to mimic an intestine’s anatomy, tapeworms disappear into the flesh the same way they do on a smaller scale in an actual coyote.
Finally, a cross section of prairie collected from Cedar Point Ranch demonstrates how different parasites can exist in an ecosystem like the Nebraska Sandhills populated with field mice, rattlesnakes and insects.
Morrill Hall has talked about creating a parasite exhibit “for a long, long time,” said Joel Nielsen, graphics specialist and project coordinator. Planning for “Guts and Glory” began last year with the goal of showing off the Manter Lab’s collection.
“We’ve got some really nice, enlarged pieces of microscopic parasites that will be really spectacular,” Nielsen said. “People will really get a good look at what you can’t always see.”
Gardner said learning more about parasites helps scientists understand biodiversity around the world.
A common robin hopping on a Lincoln lawn might be host to 3 or 4 parasites -- tapeworms, nematodes, and trematodes -- the same as a different bird in a different part of the world.
“To understand how things are connected in the world, we have to understand what’s out there,” he said.