U of U professor among team of scientists studying giant shipworms that feast on noxious gas

Posted at 5:58 PM, Apr 23, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-23 19:59:05-04

THE PHILIPPINES -- A strange species is being studied for the first time, and while some may find the giant worms unpleasant, a scientist at the University of Utah say they’re beautiful.

Scientists are calling these slimy, 5-foot long creatures their "unicorns."

“Those of us who are interested in these animals have looked and looked to find them,” said Margo Haygood, a research professor of medical chemistry at the University of Utah.

The creature’s shells were first documented in the 18th century, but it wasn’t until recently scientists were able to study the animal living inside.

Finally, an international team of scientists that included Haygood found specimens in a lagoon in the Philippines. They are called giant shipworms.

“If falls in the shipworm family, but it's completely different from all the other shipworms,” Haygood said. “And although it's been known for over 100 years from its shell, scientists have never had the opportunity to study the living animal before.”

Haygood said the giants do not eat like regular-sized shipworms, which are only a few inches in length. Those smaller worms use their mouths to eat through wood. But the giant worms don't use their mouth, and many of the worms' digestive organs have shrunk from lack of use.

“When we got living specimens to examine, we realized that the end of the tube where the head and the mouth are is capped,” Haygood said.

Scientists found these shipworms rely on bacteria inside their gills to produce food for them. The bacteria draw the energy from gas created by the sulfur in the stinky mud that makes up the giant shipworm’s home.

“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,” Haygood said.

Haygood believes her ‘unicorns’ also could produce medicinal benefits, as the worm's bacteria have the potential to produce medicine for antibiotics one day.