Scientists name parasite in a tribute to Obama

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U.S. President Barack Obama holds a news conference at the conclusion of his participation in the ASEAN Summits in Vientiane, Laos September 8, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RTX2OMLZ

U.S. President Barack Obama holds a news conference at the conclusion of his participation in the ASEAN Summits in Vientiane, Laos, on Sept. 8, 2016. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Obama, Commander in Chief and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, can add another honor to his resume: namesake of a new species.

Granted, the species is a parasitic flatworm. But in the scientific community, the act is considered an honor all the same.

“I have named a number of species after people I admire,” Thomas Platt, the parasitologist who discovered and collected the new species, said in a press release.

The move is meant to be a permanent tribute, he said. “Baracktrema obamai will endure as long as there are systematists studying these remarkable organisms.”

Platt and three other American researchers proposed Baracktrema obamai as both a new genus and species in The Journal of Parasitology. The two-inch-long, hair-thin flatworm — a type of blood fluke — infects the lungs of black marsh turtle and southeast Asian box turtles in Malaysia. The team used genetic testing and morphological analysis of the worm’s body and genitalia to determine the new species. Their proposal marks the first new genus of turtle blood fluke in 21 years.

Baracktrema obamai, a new genus and species of parasitic flatworm, was named in honor of President Obama. Image by Roberts et al., 2016, The Journal of Parasitology.

Baracktrema obamai, a new genus and species of parasitic flatworm, was named in honor of President Obama. Image by Roberts et al., 2016, The Journal of Parasitology.

The find was the last that Platt — a turtle parasite expert — named before retiring from Saint Mary’s College. Platt named 32 species during his tenure and was inspired to name Baracktrema obamai after discovering that he and the president share a common ancestor, he said.

Platt and his colleagues hope the discovery will help broaden scientific understanding of parasitic blood flukes, especially those that cause the debilitating schistosomiasis disease in humans. Schistosomiasis is contracted when blood fluke larva in contaminated water penetrate the skin. Adults, and the eggs they produce, can cause abdominal pain, diarrhoea, anaemia, stunting and other problems in human hosts.

While the new species is distantly related to worms that cause schistosomiasis in humans, it does not yet appear to harm its turtle hosts.

It is just one of many blood worms that have evolved alongside a variety of animals, said Ash Bullard, a co-author and aquatic parasitology associate professor at Auburn University. “Sharks, rays, bony fishes, crocodiles, turtles, birds and mammals all host blood flukes. [They] have been tagging along within the blood of vertebrates for a very, very long time. Dinosaurs very likely had blood flukes.”

Baracktrema obamai is not the first species bearing the name of the leader of the free world. A spider, fish, lichen, hairworm parasite and extinct lizard are also named after the president.

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