Bellevue University’s science department has struck gold in the science world with a new species discovery.
Found at American Heroes Park in the wetland areas, a tiny worm was discovered through research and curiosity.
Johnny Farnen, manager of the BU science labs, and Tyler Moore, assistant professor of biology, take students out in the field on occasion to collect research materials to study in the labs.
“One September, we took them to American Heroes Park, and there’s a little wetland down there that I’ve been visiting off and on for a few years,” Farnen said. “One of the things I did, I filled a 1-gallon Ziploc bag with mud, because it was seasonal and dry.
“We brought the mud back, threw it in the tank and just added water to see what cool critters would hatch.”
The tank sat in the science labs for students to study and conduct research on for a few years. In February 2018, Farnen and a student noticed something in the tanks.
“Our student tech at the time, Ameira Rayyan, said, ‘What are those?’ I said, ‘You know, I don’t know.’ I had been seeing them for years, I’ve seen them in other tanks and samples.”
Farnen and Rayyan grabbed microscopes and brought the worms out to study them. After awhile, they “knew they had something interesting,” Farnen said.
After gathering opinions from other science professors, all of whom weren’t sure what the species was, they studied the worms for about three months before they found out it was a Rhynchomesostoma.
Moore said once the science department hit a “dead end,” he reached out on Twitter and found a worm expert, Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, in Kansas City, Mo., at the Stowers Institute.
The team took the worms to Kansas City to be examined.
“They were willing to do the genetic analysis on them, which is the gold standard for figuring out if this might be a new species,” Moore said.
After studying the genetic work, Moore said the worm is, indeed, uniquely genetic than anything previously discovered, which is an indication that it’s a new species.
To also determine if a species is new or not, there are many factors that go into that discovery, such as genitalia and chromosomes, and the geographic isolation from other populations.
“There’s quite a few really beautiful and unique things they’re doing that we’ve not seen described,” Moore said. “Some of them, we’ve not been vocal about because we want to be able to describe them before anyone else does.”
At one point there were four worms in the tank, but then that number grew to 8,000 after being successfully reproduced.
“Bellevue University natural science laboratories, we are the first ones to successfully mass-culture an organism like this,” Farnen said. “All the existing literatures say you can keep one or two and observe them for awhile, and I’ve read research papers that say it’s virtually impossible to culture these. We’re able to produce hundreds of thousands on demand right here in our labs. It had never been done before, so we had to develop the protocol.”
The largest worms average about 2 to 3 millimeters in length, which is equivalent to the width of a toothpick. They’re transparent, so they can only be seen in the tank with a flashlight.
They feed on a saltwater crustacean called daphnia, which the worms appear to capture with a toxin emitted from their bodies to paralyze them.
One unique characteristic of the worms is their reproduction — they both lay eggs and give live birth. When a worm gives birth, it bursts open, sacrificing itself while the babies float away or the eggs settle at the bottom.
Farnen said they’re hard to find in the wild, as he’s taken more than 100 samples from parts of Nebraska, Iowa, Wyoming and Colorado and hasn’t found any other than the American Heroes Park.
“It’s not that they’re not there, I’d never make that claim, it’s that they are difficult to find,” he said. “It was sheer dumb luck we ended up with as many as we did in our original sample.”
Farnen said the discovery means a lot to BU and the science department.
“Hundreds of species are discovered each day, but you don’t hear about them,” he said.
“This being not bacteria or algae, it’s huge. We’ve done a lot of group research over the years at BU with our news labs and facilities, but this is one of the big guys — they one that gives us a little more notoriety.”