What Can Vampires Teach Us About the Parasites All Around Us?

By now, it has become fairly well known, both in scientific circles and among the general population, that the human body is home to countless tiny organisms. What isn’t as well known is how vast and complex the human “microbiome” actually is, and what kinds of critters live in this microscopic ecosystem that exists inside and on our bodies.

One particularly unsettling fact about this unseen biosphere is the pervasiveness of parasites. According to some estimates, parasites outnumber free-living species four to one, meaning the majority of all life on earth is likely parasitic. These omnipresent parasites have tremendous influence on everything from human health to the evolutionary arc of entire species. This means, as Yale lecturer and New York Times columnist Carl Zimmer has said, “…the study of life is, for the most part, parasitology.”

To illuminate some of the mysteries around human-pathogen interactions, my institution, the University of California, Irvine, recently created a free MOOC (a Massive Open Online Course, meaning anyone with an Internet connection can enroll) on the Canvas Network to teach the world about parasitology and other scientific topics through the lens of vampires (yes, you read that right). Specifically, we’ve partnered with FX Networks to leverage the popular TV series The Strain as a way to help people understand the nature of parasites.

For the uninitiated, The Strain is based on a novel of the same name by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, and its premise takes a modern and scientific twist on the vampire legend. An aggressive parasite infects New York City, turning people into vampires. These aren’t the supernatural vampires depicted by Bram Stoker, or the sparkly ones from Twilight, but instead are fangless humans whose biology has been altered, most notably through the —> Read More