This Miraculous Marine Worm’s Blood Is About To Aid Organ Transplants

Source: Hakai Magazine/Lorraine Boissoneault 

Photo: Nick Veitch/Wikimedia Commons


It started with a simple question: how does the lugworm, Arenicola marina, survive for six hours without breathing? The marine worm lives on beaches from the Arctic to the Mediterranean, eating sand and digesting the microorganisms therein. When the tide goes out, the worm burrows deep, leaving behind piles reminiscent of the poop emoji. The 10- to 20-centimeter-long lugworms breathe through gills, like fish, but they spend half their lives out of water. Biologist Franck Zal wanted to know how they do it.

“I went out on the beach with my bucket, my spade, and my boots, and I collected my worms,” Zal says of his research in the 1990s. Back in the National Center for Scientific Research laboratory, in Roscoff, France, Zal made an astonishing discovery. The worms survived out of the water for so long thanks to their hemoglobin, the cells in blood that carry oxygen. In human blood, one hemoglobin cell holds four oxygen molecules at a time. A lugworm hemoglobin cell holds 156.

The more Zal looked, the more miraculous the worms’ blood became. The lugworm is a universal donor; its blood doesn’t have any of the A, B, or O antigens that give human blood its type. As he investigated, Zal came to a realization: these worms, and their wondrous blood, could change medicine.

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Photo: Nick Veitch/Wikimedia Commons

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