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Know your nematodes

If you and your relatives can make yourselves at home almost anywhere on the planet--in water, in the dirt, inside plants, inside sea ice, inside animals, and even inside people--there's a very good chance you are a nematode.

A nematode is a type of worm that is also called a roundworm. Just like in many families with a lot of relatives, they can be very different from each other. For instance, some species are so tiny they can only be seen with a microscope, but others "family members" can be 26 feet long.

LOOK—Nematodes are a type of worm also called roundworms that can live in plants, animals, water, and soil. Many of them are so tiny you would not be able to see them without a magnifying glass or microscope. (Microsoft Office Images photo.)

NEMATODE—To identify an unknown nematode intercepted at a U.S. port, microbiologist Zafar Handoo and plant pathologist Lynn Carta examine the head of a plant-parasitic nematode. They will compare it with specimens in the USDA Nematode Collection to make the ID. (Photo by Peggy Greb.)

Some nematodes are good guys. They live in soil and attack insect pests that damage plants. Other nematodes living in the soil eat bacteria, a process that releases nitrogen into the soil. Later on, that nitrogen can be used by crops to help them grow.

Other nematodes are not so good. Some are parasites that live inside plant roots and interfere with the plant's ability to grow and stay healthy. Others are parasites that live inside livestock and make them sick. Some parasites that live inside humans are also nematodes.

Since these remarkable roundworms can have a big impact on healthy crops and healthy livestock, scientists around the world want to keep an eye on them. So Andrea Skantar, a scientist at the Agricultural Research Service, helped write a guide called "Introduction to Nematodes." It has all kinds of information that farmers, students, and anyone else can use to learn more about these worms living all around us.

It's good to know your neighbors, even if you can't see them!

Date: 10/22/2012

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