Saturday, July 14, 2007

When is a worm a microbe? When it is in the New York Times (in 1996)

Well, it is dangerous I guess to follow the ways people get to my blog. One person used the search terms "dr. david relman and the new worm". And what did they get: this. The top hit is an article from 1996 in the New York Times by Lawrence Altman. The story reports on an article in the Lancet which itself reported the apparent connection of a new worm species to the death of an AIDS patient. The worm was identified by PCR surveys. Nevermind the details of the article. The most intriguing thing to me (especially since I did not then realize this was not a new article in the Times) ... the line:

"The sequences were distinct from human DNA and placed the microbe in the tapeworm class"

Yes that's right, the microbe was a worm. I know - it is a little late to be blogging about a 1996 article. But hey, I did not have a blog then and at the time I think I may have written a letter to the editor about the mistake, but I am not so sure anymore. So now I am correcting the record. Worms are in fact NOT microbes.


  1. Worm is a junk phrase describing nothing. At least from a biologist's point of view.

  2. Well, that may be the case, but "microbe" clearly implies a single celled organism. And this thing really is a worm. So saying "the microbe turned out to be ..." implies it is a microbe.

  3. Actually, does it? I think technically a "microbe" is just an organism too small to see with the naked eye. (from Greek: mikros=small and bios=life).

    In practice, true, it evokes mental images of single celled organisms, but there is nothing in the origin of the word that implies that.

  4. well, yes, but this worm is not invisible to the naked eye ... it is just something they did not see because the worms were dead.

    that would be like calling the yeti a microbe because nobody has really seen it