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I Asked a Bunch of Epidemiologists How To Make Fashion Out of Parasites

I asked some of the best minds in our country to take a break from solving legitimate world problems to contemplate the feasibility of making a bikini out of worms.

by Kara Crabb
Jun 18 2015, 8:15pm

Illustrations by the author

One of the great things about being a vapid moron is that no one expects anything from you and you can do whatever you want. For five days I wandered around the annual Ecology & Evolution of Infectious Disease conference in Athens, Georgia, hovering over the cookie table and complimenting scientists on their shoes. When my 2011 article about how to make a suit out of living raccoons appeared on my newsfeed in the middle of a presentation on parasite conservation,I started to wonder about the logistics of making a bodysuit entirely out of roundworms instead. (A lot of people thought I was going to get rabies when I did the raccoon suit, but contracting baylisascaris was way more plausible and terrifying, in my opinion.)So as math prodigies and scientists from around the world conspired to solve legitimate problems that exist, I decided to ask them about making fashion with our parasite friends.

Sars Textile

Liam uses statistical models to predict the transmissibility of RNA viruses. During lunch break he told me about an art project he worked on with Robbie Coleman, a conceptual artist from Britain. Coleman made a textile using images of the SARS virus and installed it as wallpaper in a functional hotel room. The wallpaper stayed there, open to the public, as a reference to the original SARS case in humans.

When Liam first explained this to me, I wasn't sure if the SARS virus was actually imbedded in the fibers or not. Obviously that would never happen and I'm just an idiot. But I like to think that artists are always pushing the envelope, whether or not that envelope is filled with SARS. Who knows? Maybe Coleman had a method of containing the virus in capsules that no one besides him would ever detect. This is all to say: Liam suggested using representations of the parasites to design a textile.

Parasite fashion not your thing? Let Kara show you how to make a suit out of live raccoons!

Bikini Heterorhabditis

Tim, who researches host-parasite co-evolution, revealed himself to be a fashion visionary. I'm not sure if he was drunk when we met but I'm pretty sure I was leaning into his face with stained teeth, reeking of red wine.

"What would you do if you could design a suit made out of parasites?" I asked.

"Bikini," he replied.

My eyebrows lifted off my face. I had never even considered that.

"Using only worms," said Tim.

It was so simple, so beautiful. I pictured rows of tapeworms crocheted together.

"No, no, just one worm," said Tim as he mimed a narrow band across his chest.

My mouth fell agape.

"Like, just a nipple strap?" I asked.

"Yeah, covering the nipples."

"What about the bottoms?"

He mimed another imaginary worm across his hips, essentially the size of dental floss. "Well, I guess you would need more than one worm for the bottoms," he added.

Again I pictured a crocheted pattern of worms but knew Tim's idea was much more parsimonious.

"What kind of worms would you use?" I asked.

He thought for a second.

"Heterorhabditis," he said.

In my notebook there's a scribble that looks vaguely like, "RHebpus."

Microscopy Printed Bra

Tanya, who studies rabies, also suggested using worms, only her idea was to turn them into a scarf. She tapped her lab mate, who was in the middle of a text conversation, and asked for her input. She looked up from her phone with an absent gaze.

"A bra," she said and immediately went back to texting.

"Made out of what?" I prodded.

"Oh," she looked up from her phone again. "Bright colors," she offered.

"But what parasites?" I said.

"It could be anything." She didn't look up this time. "Bright colors," she repeated. "Like microscopy."

I wandered away imagining this becoming a thing in 2018.

Organic Fabric

Reni's job is to explore the path of a population's extinction. When I asked her how she would make fashion out of parasites, she thought I was talking about the Invertebrate Ball at Friday Harbor Lab. After I explained what I meant, she told me that her initial thought was a reference to flour refinery. She'd heard about ground crickets being used as a protein-rich flour substitute and wondered if something like this might be possible for parasites and fabric. That was her INITIAL thought. Imagine what she can accomplish in one day. You can't. You can't imagine that.

Blood

Peter is an important figure in the world of disease ecology, something like a king. When I asked him what he would do his response was just, "Blood."

"Like, Carrie style?" I said.

"Yes."

Trematode Accessory

Maybe one of the strangest answers I got was from Ian, a disease ecologist from Emory University. The bar was closing and everyone was trying to figure out where to go. We were all standing near a giant trough of tiramisu. When his friend relayed the question to him he said, "Tennis ball!" as if he were on a game show.

"What?" said his friend.

Ian's arms stretched backward and he pointed to his own spine.

"A trematode," he said. "As a tennis ball, that straps around your back."

His friend interjected, "That's not what she meant, Ian."

I urged him to continue. It was amazing.

"So the trematode is burrowing into the amphibian," he said.

Then I think he said the words "retinoic acid," but I'm not sure. I had no idea what he was talking about. According to my Google search results, it looks like trematodes cause limb deformities in amphibians. According to the journal Ecology, it looks like Ian "combined multiscale field data with manipulative experiments" to better understand parasite competition via Ribeiroia onatrae and Echinostoma trivolvis.

Wow, epidemiologists are really smart. Maybe one day all of these things will exist and humans will stop being so overpopulated and there will be peace on Earth at last.

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