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Gabe Langford Pursues the Gordian Worm

Gabe Langford

Jasmine Childress and Dr. Gabriel Langford examine the specimens they have collected in the FSC biology lab.

Oct 15, 2013

By Cary McMullen
Publications Editor

Dr. Gabriel Langford with FSC  biology students Jasmine Childress and Trey Iakovidis
Dr. Gabriel Langford (center) with FSC biology students Jasmine Childress and Trey Iakovidis are up to their knees in research as they look for invertebrate specimens in a Central Florida pond. 

The study of parasites is not a particularly glamorous topic, admits FSC Assistant Professor of Biology Gabriel Langford. Because parasites often live in the digestive tracts of their hosts, finding them involves dissections that can sound pretty disgusting to a non-scientist. 

“My wife sometimes has to elbow me when I’m describing what I do,” Langford jokes.

But Langford’s research is paying dividends both in contributing to scientific knowledge and in supporting engaged learning at FSC. Last spring, he received a $25,000 Research Opportunity Award from the prestigious National Science Foundation that enabled him and two undergraduate students to conduct original research on a group of parasites known as Gordian worms (phylum Nematomorpha).

The research project involves collecting snails and other aquatic invertebrates to search for new species of Gordian worms and determine their distribution in central Florida streams. Langford believes that his team has discovered a new species of worm in dragonfly larvae in Central Florida lakes.

Gordian worms are common parasites of invertebrates, such as crickets and snails, and like most parasites they have a complex life cycle and an intimate relationship with their hosts. Langford thinks they are awesome.

“They are frequently overlooked reservoirs of biodiversity, and they have some interesting adaptations,” he says. “Gordian worms have been shown to alter the behavior of their hosts, including causing their host, such as a cricket, to commit suicide by jumping into a pool of water so that the worm can emerge to reproduce. Not a lot of research has been conducted on Nematomorpha in Florida. It’s nice we can use the grant to do interesting research with undergraduates.”

Langford is the first faculty member at FSC to ever receive a Research Opportunity Award, which is provided to faculty members at schools like FSC that are primarily teaching institutions, to foster collaborations with research universities. Langford applied for the research grant with a colleague in parasitology, Oklahoma State University Assistant Professor Matt Bolek. The grant enabled Langford and his undergraduates, junior biology majors Jasmine Childress and Trey Iakovidis, to travel to Oklahoma State, which gave them experience at a large research laboratory.

The lab at Oklahoma State included a $500,000 scanning electron microscope, which was used on the specimens Childress and Iakovidis collected, revealing astonishing details about the worms that couldn’t be seen under the lab microscopes at FSC. It was a rare opportunity for undergraduates to use an important research tool.

“That was really cool,” Childress says.

The grant will result in several benefits for FSC students. Langford plans to incorporate his research into his Parasitology course this semester, giving students an opportunity to learn about these fascinating creatures. The grant also provides support for Bolek to visit FSC for several days this fall to assist in training biology faculty and students. Bolek will also give a seminar on Gordian worms in the Polk Science lecture hall.

In addition, the grant will enable Langford and his students to produce two papers to disseminate their findings at upcoming meetings of the Southeastern Society of Parasitogists and the American Society of Parasitologists.

Iakovidis is planning to attend medical school, and Childress would like to pursue a Ph.D. in biology, so the students will receive valuable research credit as co-authors of the papers, which will help in their career goals, they said.