Thursday, 10 April 2014

Cells and Worms - 2. The Shirt

Last post I talked about how seeing how many worms overlap if you drop them on a patch of ground, how (somehow) this was vaguely related to my scientific research, and that the simulation of this process even generates quite nice pictures. If you thought that was geeky, then this takes geekyness to a whole new level!

Part of my research has been into the shapes of trypanosome parasites. Trypanosomes that cause disease in people are fairly widely known (you might have heard of sleeping sickness, Chagas disease, or leishmaniasis) but trypanosomes don't just infect people. Trypanosome species have also been found infecting animals from sharks to penguins, crocodiles to elephants. There is even one species named after Steve Irwin (the crocodile hunter) that infects koalas!

A scanning electron microscope image of Trypanosoma brucei, the trypanosome which causes sleeping sickness.

In short, I did some research to test whether there were particular characteristic shapes of trypanosomes (length, width, etc.) that look like they might help the parasite survive in the bloodstream of different host animals. I made a big database of properties of trypanosome shape and, using the scripts I made to draw nicely tesselated trypanosome shapes I talked about in the last post, I put together a compelling summary of just how varied trypanosome shapes from different host species are are:


The science behind this picture suggests some interesting adaptation to help the parasites swim within their host bloodstream, but that's enough about the science. To me this pattern was just begging to be on a shirt, an abstract design with a biological twist!

Spoonflower is a fantastic online service where you can order customised fabric, wallpaper and other prints. So that is exactly what I did, and after some sewing (that I didn't do myself) I am now the proud owner of the world's only 100% scientifically accurate trypanosome shirt, featuring 27 different trypanosome species.


Scientists always say that research can take you down unexpected paths. This path from wriggly worms, through an image generating script, through research into trypanosome shape, to the world's only trypanosome shirt was quite an unexpected one!

Software used:
ImageJ: Automated trypanosome drawing.
Inkscape: Conversion to vector graphics for printing.

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