U of U researchers discover ‘Giant Shipworm’

Posted at 6:50 PM, Apr 17, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-17 22:00:01-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- A new animal called the "Giant Shipworm" has been discovered in a lagoon in the southern Philippines.

A team of international scientists including medicinal chemist Margo Haygood from the University of Utah, Drexel University, Second Genome in San Francisco, Ecole Normale Superieure, France and the University of the Philippines, the Sultan Kudarat State University and the Philippine Genome Center in the Philippines all collaborated to find and study the Giant Shipworm.

Haygood explained there are already shipworms they have been studying that are smaller than the new ones. The regular shipworm is a few inches in length, whereas the Giant Shipworm is anywhere between three to five feet long.

She called them unicorns because scientists have been searching for them for hundreds of years but only read about them in old animal literature.

“We don't really know why they are so hard to find,” said Haygood. “People who are interested in these animals have wanted to study the living animal for at least throughout the twentieth century. Those of us who are interested in these animals have looked and looked to find them. And although we know the area generally they should be, they require a special habitat that may come and go over time. So, there is not a specific place that you know you're going to get them.”

She said the animal is more bio-diverse than she could have thought.

“It's a truly amazing animal. So, this animal, the giant shipworm. It falls in the shipworm family but it's completely different from all the shipworms and although it's been known for over 100 years for its shell, scientists have never had the opportunity to study the living animal before. The difference between the giant shipworm and other shipworms are truly remarkable. It's really startling because it's an animal that comes from within a family of wood eating shipworms so the ancestor of this animal ate wood and at some point, it gave up eating wood and it changed its symbionts which is something pretty much unheard of," said Haygood.

She said regular shipworms eat wood with their mouths and they leave behind holes and shapes in the wood. However, the giant shipworms cannot even use their mouths to eat.

“There is the big mystery of why they are so different from other ship worms. Other shipworms burrow into wood, these guys are living in sediment that suggests they have a very different lifestyle. When we got living specimens to examine we realized that the end of the tube where the head and the mouth are is capped. Which means they cannot do like a normal shipworm, which is grinding the wood and then eating it. Their mouth is covered they can't be eating in a normal way. So how are they able to survive?” said Haygood.

Their team figured it out by dissecting the worms and studying their habitat. They found the Giant Shipworms have bacteria inside their gills that they use to make food.

“Those bacteria are taking chemicals like hydrogen sulfide, extracting the energy from those and using it to make food molecules--just the way a plant uses the energy from the sun to make the food molecules that we eat," said Haygood.

She said the potential for medicinal benefits lies within the Giant Shipworm.

“The bacteria that normal shipworms have, the enzymes they have for breaking down the wood, could be used industrially for converting wood into sugars or ethanol for industrial purposes; furthermore we believe the bacteria in the gills (of the Giant Shipworm) may also be a source of antimicrobials, which could be developed as antibiotic drugs. That's the reason for the interest in the family in general," said Haygood.