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4 Parasites We Wouldn't Mind Hosting, After All

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It's parasites week here at mental_floss, which we kicked off two days ago with the release of our newest video, "Attack of the Parasites." Now, while it's true that there are all kinds of compelling reasons to avoid becoming infested with parasites -- especially by the kinds that cause things like river blindness and elephantiasis of the genitalia -- there are also a few reasons to make nice with our tiny, opportunistic compatriots. Here are four.

1. Pseudacteon, the "decapitating fly"

Nobody likes fire ants. Where I grew up in Southern Florida, they were a major nemesis to unfettered, shoeless outdoor romping; one false step could mean a foot covered in biting, welt-inducing fire ants. In fact, ever since they were accidentally imported from South America via cargo ship in the 1930s, they've spread like an annoying, predator-less plague from coast to coast, infesting at least 18 states. So far, the only measures introduced to deal with them have been stopgap at best -- sprinkling poison on the mounds, for instance. That is, until now.

ant1.gifMeet Pseudacteon, a parasitic fly from South America. Pseudacteon, like most living creatures, loves to reproduce. The important distinction between it and other flies, however, is where Pseudacteon lays its eggs: inside the heads of fire ants. Get ready for an awesomely grody cycle-of-life: the larvae develop by feeding on the muscle and nervous tissue in the head. After about two weeks, they cause the ant's head to fall off by releasing an enzyme that dissolves the membrane attaching the ant's head to its body. The fly pupates in the detached head capsule (pictured above!). Hence: the decapitating fly! Currently, industrious agricultural scholars are importing them from South America in the hopes that they'll do rid us of our fire ants. Godspeed, little decapitators.

2. Worm therapy

A rare bit of good news from the world of gastrointestinal maladies: swallowing the eggs of a certain type of parasite worm may actually help cure Crohn's disease. The basic theory is this: in countries where people's exposure to parasites is high, disorders of the immune system like Crohn's, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes are rare. In ultra-sanitized industrialized nations like the U.S., they're common. According to researchers, we may have hygiened our way into a few diseases that certain types of parasites actually help prevent, and by re-introducing them into the body -- that is, with "worm therapy" -- we may actually be able to combat those conditions.

Specifically, treatment with the eggs of the intestinal parasite helminth Trichuris suis may be a safe and effective treatment for Crohn's disease, according to the results of a small, preliminary trial conducted at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. T. suis is not a natural human parasite, but primarily affects pigs.

3. The blepharipa schineri fly

cat2.jpgIf swallowing worm eggs isn't your thing, then maybe you can get behind this: the fuzzy, half-inch-long blepharipa schineri does for the gypsy moth what the decapitating fly does for the fire ant. (Well, it doesn't actually decapitate the moth, but the end result is the same: no more moths. It achieves this by laying eggs in pre-moth gypsy caterpillars, where they hatch and prevent them from growing into moths.)

What's so terrible about gypsy moths? Just ask a park ranger: gypsy moths eat the leaves of some of our most popular shrubs and trees, from oak to beech to poplars. In the Eastern U.S., the moths are well-established over at least 60 million acres, defoliating and killing hundreds of varieties of trees. If you don't like the sound of that, you just might like the sound of what the fly does to the moth:

A parasite of the gypsy moth, the B. schineri fly kills unlucky gypsy moth caterpillars that accidentally eat fly eggs while munching on leaves. A gray-black speck about the size of a thumbtack point, the fly egg hatches inside the caterpillar's stomach. The transparent B. schineri maggot that emerges will later poke holes in the caterpillar's gut, then wriggle its way to the nerve cord that runs the length of the body. While the gypsy moth caterpillar transforms into a pupa--a pre-moth that slumbers in a silky, loosely woven cradle--the B. schineri maggot feeds on the host's innards, slowly killing it.

Gross? Sure. Useful? Definitely. Lucky for us, moths are this fly's only breeding ground.

4. It Makes the Ladies Happy

Quite literally: the Toxoplasma parasite, found primarily in cat feces, is known to have a mood-altering effect on humans, which differs depending on the sex of the human. In a study conducted by parasitologist Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague, some infected women were likely to become more outgoing and warm-hearted, whereas some infected men became more jealous and suspicious. (Not everyone is mood-altered by cat poo; it's a small, though statistically significant, percentage.) When it's not changing our moods, the Toxoplasma is trying to spread itself by making rats who come into contact with it act fearless, which makes it easier for them to be caught by cats (who then become infected, etc).

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Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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