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Pires da Silva's research could help control disease

Pires da Silva
Pires da Silva

A paper published in the prestigious online journal Nature Communications that reveals the molecular biology behind a certain worm’s ability to ignore the laws of genetics could lead to control of some parasitic nematode species.

This work was a collaboration between the laboratories of Andre Pires da Silva, assistant professor of biology at The University of Texas at Arlington, and Diane Shakes, associate professor of biology at William & Mary College.

The paper outlines the unusual developmental processes that lead to skewing of the worms’ sex ratio. Rhabditis is a species of nematode or worm that produces only 5 percent of male offspring. About 35 percent of the species are hermaphrodites or self-fertilizing.

The first law of Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, states that sexually reproducing organisms should produce equal numbers of males and females.

“So here we have a worm or nematode that produces male in very small numbers,” Pires da Silva said. “If we could find out how that is accomplished and translate that to the parasitic world, that could have a tremendous impact on the quality of life people around the world experience. We might be able to render those parasites ineffective.”

He said Third World countries could control or eliminate some diseases that depend upon these organisms to start. The World Health Organization estimates that 2.9 billion people are infected with nematodes. “With our work, we provide a hypothesis for future work to explain how these parasites are able to make progeny of only one sex,” Shakes said in a William & Mary news release. “By preventing them of becoming self-propagating pathogenic females, there could be a way of controlling them.”

Pires da Silva initially became interested in Rhabditis because he wanted to understand how this species evolved three sexual forms (males, females and hermaphrodites), while most animals exist as male/female species.

Nature Communications is a new online offering from the publishers of Nature, the preeminent journal in the life sciences. In addition to Shakes and Pires da Silva, collaborators include Ph.D. student Jyotiska Chaudhuri and undergraduate student Henry Huynh, both of UT Arlington and both members of Pires da Silva’s lab, as well as a former William & Mary undergraduate, Bryan Neva.

Read more about Pires de Silva’s research here. also has published a story on the research; read it here.