sn-roundworm.jpg

University of Leicester; (inset, left) Piers Mitchell

ScienceShot: Richard III, Begnawed by Worms

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Susan Langthorp
2013-09-03 19:15
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It's not every day that the body of a king turns up, especially one who died in battle and was buried in haste. But last year, archaeologists discovered the skeleton of King Richard III under a parking lot in Leicester, U.K. Ever since, researchers have been looking for clues about his life. Using a microscope, the scientists found eggs, just 55 microns wide, of the roundworm Ascaris lumbricoides where his intestines would have been in the grave. Adult roundworms grow up to 30 centimeters long, absorb nutrients from the gut, and can produce 200,000 eggs a day for a year. As published today in The Lancet, scientists found only a few eggs anywhere else around the remains or in the surrounding soil so they conclude that the eggs from his gut (see photo inset) came from a roundworm infection, not contamination of the soil. As roundworm eggs hatch, they dig their way through the heart and lungs, so Richard may have spit blood and suffered abdominal pain. It could have been worse: Noblemen like Richard ate a lot of beef, pork, and fish, which carry the other common gut parasite, tapeworms, but cooking prevents infection. Richard apparently had no tapeworms. He probably acquired his roundworms from water or raw food contaminated with feces, a common fertilizer during the Middle Ages.

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