bring the parasites back inside us

New connections are being made between inflammation in the womb and the occurrence of autism in offspring. My ears perk up, as I see how many Chinese herbs are used to treat various inflammatory conditions (or general ones) and some of those botanical sources are highly invasive species, who thrive in disturbed, adverse, declined, urban, asthmatic ecosystems (see Invasive Plant Medicine for a treatise and list by herbalist Tim Scott) .

An Immune Disorder at the Root of Autism,”  The New York Times, Aug 26, 2012:


 More recently, William Parker at Duke University has chimed in. He’s not, by training, an autism expert. But his work focuses on the immune system and its role in biology and disease, so he’s particularly qualified to point out the following: the immune system we consider normal is actually an evolutionary aberration.

Some years back, he began comparing wild sewer rats with clean lab rats. They were, in his words, “completely different organisms.” Wild rats tightly controlled inflammation. Not so the lab rats. Why? The wild rodents were rife with parasites. Parasites are famous for limiting inflammation.

Humans also evolved with plenty of parasites. Dr. Parker and many others think that we’re biologically dependent on the immune suppression provided by these hangers-on and that their removal has left us prone to inflammation. “We were willing to put up with hay fever, even some autoimmune disease,” he told me recently. “But autism? That’s it! You’ve got to stop this insanity.”

What does stopping the insanity entail? Fix the maternal dysregulation, and you’ve most likely prevented autism. That’s the lesson from rodent experiments. In one, Swiss scientists created a lineage of mice with a genetically reinforced anti-inflammatory signal. Then the scientists inflamed the pregnant mice. The babies emerged fine — no behavioral problems. The take-away: Control inflammation during pregnancy, and it won’t interfere with fetal brain development.

For people, a drug that’s safe for use during pregnancy may help. A probiotic, many of which have anti-inflammatory properties, may also be of benefit. Not coincidentally, asthma researchers are arriving at similar conclusions; prevention of the lung disease will begin with the pregnant woman. Dr. Parker has more radical ideas: pre-emptive restoration of “domesticated” parasites in everybody — worms developed solely for the purpose of correcting the wayward, postmodern immune system.

Practically speaking, this seems beyond improbable. And yet, a trial is under way at the Montefiore Medical Center and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine testing a medicalized parasite called Trichuris suis in autistic adults.

First used medically to treat inflammatory bowel disease, the whipworm, which is native to pigs, has anecdotally shown benefit in autistic children.

And really, if you spend enough time wading through the science, Dr. Parker’s idea — an ecosystem restoration project, essentially — not only fails to seem outrageous, but also seems inevitable.

Since time immemorial, a very specific community of organisms — microbes, parasites, some viruses — has aggregated to form the human superorganism. Mounds of evidence suggest that our immune system anticipates these inputs and that, when they go missing, the organism comes unhinged.

Future doctors will need to correct the postmodern tendency toward immune dysregulation. Evolution has provided us with a road map: the original accretion pattern of the superorganism. Preventive medicine will need, by strange necessity, to emulate the patterns from deep in our past.

Addendum: Colleague Marianne Petit sent me a link to a blog post taking this article apart. Such a good comeuppance for me, to remember to distinguish between exciting poetics, and well-wrought scientific inquiry:

Emily Willingham, Autism, immunity, inflammation, and the New York Times

As he closes with two paragraphs in which he uses, without preamble, the word “superorganism” twice, Velasquez-Manoff then violates science yet again by calling this plan to colonize all people with worms an “ecosystem restoration project.” Never mind the plain fact that you simply can’t go home again when it comes to ecosystems and that colonizing our guts with pig parasites isn’t exactly replaying our evolutionary history. Either way, we are not the organisms we were 10,000 years ago or even 1000 years ago, not even counting the worms, and we won’t be again. Talking about “days of yore” and “time immemorial” doesn’t backtrack the collective changes our species has accumulated since the good old days of rampant parasitic infestations and high infant mortality. And my hope is that articles like this one won’t backtrack us to viewing all of autism as rooted in immune dysfunction and find ourselves once again staring into the abyss of vaccine panic.

What we have here is an argument that relies on shaky and shifting hypotheses of autism and autoimmune epidemics and hygiene, built using sparse data and scientific hints, a poor understanding of basic evolution and ecology, and a paradox of calling for a return to a more infectious past to “cure” autism while blaming immune-dysregulated, occasionally infected mothers of the present for …  autism. In his closing, Velasquez-Manoff argues that evolution provided us with a roadmap of the original microbial and parasitic ecosystems we once were, one that, presumably, if we follow it, will guide us out of the “insanity” and “affliction” that is autism. If it’s possible, that’s where he’s most wrong. Evolution isn’t something that happens with a plan. To describe it in those terms is to have a profound failure of understanding of what evolution is. Where we’re going, evolutionarily speaking, there are no roads.  And it would be better for most of us if there weren’t any parasitic worms, either.


Jasmine Becomes Contraband in China –

Beginning in February, when anonymous calls for a Chinese “jasmine revolution” began circulating on the Internet, the Chinese characters for jasmine have been intermittently blocked in cellphone text messages while videos of President Hu Jintao singing “Mo Li Hua,” a Qing dynasty paean to the flower, have been plucked from the Web. Local officials, fearful of the flower’s destabilizing potency, canceled this summer’s China International Jasmine Cultural Festival in south China, said Wu Guangyan, manager of the Guangxi Jasmine Development and Investment Company.

Even if Chinese cities have been free from any whiff of revolutionary turmoil, the war on jasmine has not been without casualties, most notably the ever-expanding list of democracy advocates, bloggers and other would-be troublemakers who have been preemptively detained by public security agents, among them the artist provocateur Ai Weiwei, who remains in police custody after being seized at Beijing’s international airport last month.

Less well known are the tribulations endured by the tawny-skinned men and women who grow ornamental jasmine here in Daxing, a district on the rural fringe of the capital. They say prices have collapsed since March, when the police issued an open-ended jasmine ban at a number of retail and wholesale flower markets around Beijing.

via Jasmine Becomes Contraband in China –


Been thinking a bit about taproots as a good model for stubborn ideas.

A taproot is an enlarged somewhat straight to tapering plant root that grows vertically downward. It forms a center from which other roots sprout laterally.[1]

The taproot of Carrots.

Plants with taproots are difficult to transplant. The presence of a taproot is why dandelions are hard to uproot — the top is pulled, but the long taproot stays in the ground, and re-sprouts.

Most plants start with a taproot,[2] which is one main root forming from the enlarging radical of the seed. The tap root can be persistent through out the life of the plant but is most often replaced later in the plants development by a fibrous root system.[2][3]A persistent taproot system forms when the radical keeps growing and smaller lateral roots form along the taproot; often the radical dies some after seed germination causing the development of a fibrous root system which lacks one main downward growing root. Most trees begin life with a taproot,[3] but after one to a few years the main root system changes to a wide-spreading fibrous root system with mainly horizontal growing surface roots and only a few vertical, deep anchoring roots. A typical mature tree 30–50 m tall has a root system that extends horizontally in all directions as far as the tree is tall or more, but well over 95% of the roots are in the top 50 cm depth of soil.

– thanks wikipedia

The relationship between supermarket chains and voracious species

From Self, the urban guide to almost self sufficiency (Urban Homesteading):

Paul Kingsnorth likens this plant to a major supermarket in his book real England. The following paragraph beautifully sums up how both knotweed and Tescos behavior.

“Just as Knotweed is all cloned from one single plant, so the big chains are all cloned from global corporations. Just as Knotweed makes it impossible for the local plant life at its roots, and thus kills off the local insects and the local birds, so the big chain shops kill off the local independent shops around them and thus destroys the local economy. Just as Knotweed will come back again several growing seasons in a row until those of us out there with mallets and rollers are exhausted, so a big supermarket, refused planning permission, will apply again and again until the Council and local people are worn down and give in.”

Knotweed shoots being harvested in spring

Knotweed shoots being harvested in spring

Knotweed picking in springtime New York

Something to look forward to next spring!

My friend Leda and I are partners in crime. We conspire to pick noxious weeds in a public park, which, technically, is against the law. I checked. The fine in New York City is $1,000 for removing plants from a park, although writing a ticket for picking an invasive plant like Japanese knotweed should make any self-respecting park ranger blush. When I weigh the tart, zesty taste of knotweed shoots against the threat of a hefty citation, the scales tip heavily in favor of the knotweed.

In the spring, Japanese knotweed sends up thick green spears mottled with red, like asparagus on steroids with a sunburn. Exactly when it muscles its way up through the earth depends on where you live. In New York City, the knotweed picking is best in April, so harvest earlier if you live farther south, later if farther north.

Knotweed stalks at prime harvest time.

Before it starts to branch, knotweed is very tender; after branching, the stems are so tough that you have to peel them to eat them. That’s too much work for me, so I harvest early. Knotweed grows fast; within a few days, it’s gone from tender to tough, so when I see the first spears poke up, I don’t dawdle.

Some people think knotweed is bamboo, because of its tall, woody, jointed stems. It’s not closely related, but it’s just as invasive; by the end of summer, knotweed can be six to eight feet tall. The tall, dead stalks from the previous year’s growth make excellent markers for new growth in the spring, with the young shoots poking up around the old stalks.

Since there are so many things you can make with knotweed, you’ll have no trouble using as much as you harvest. And if you clean and freeze the stems when you get home, you can cook with it at your leisure; it keeps for months in the freezer. Knotweed wine is one of my favorite home brews; it takes less time to finish fermenting than many other wines and tastes like a good sauterne with a tawny gold color. Knotweed can be substituted for rhubarb in pies, jams, and jellies; it combines well with strawberries, blueberries, and apples. And, yes, you can use knotweed as a vegetable; it’s tart and crunchy in stir-fries and lemony delicious under hollandaise. My favorite way to eat knotweed is in a creamy soup. Nothing like turning environmental activism into lunch.

Ribes sativum

These white currants are growing in my friends’ (Ruth & Oliver) compound on Cortes Island.
They are an albino sport of the red currant, with lower acidity and a chalky seed. And they look like alien magic eggs.

Golden Currant

White Currant