They Suck

I have concluded that the first step in facing an irrational feel is to go to the internet.  You not only have immediate knowledge – the universal antidote to fear – but you will also have easy access to others who have embraced your fear, turned it into a sustaining passion and their life’s work.  Take for example, leeches, which to me signify what is rotten about a lake.  I can hardly put my toe into the water of the cold clear lakes that are the defining feature of my Midwestern environment.  There is that pervasive fear that some leech will rise up suck my blood.  The vivid leech scenes from the movies African Queen and Stand By Me don’t help. 

 But within 0.57 seconds of typing “leech and biology” into Google, I am knee deep into the 1999 diary of Mark Siddall, who is in the Andes prospecting for leeches.  Siddall says that he first became interested when he was “attacked” by one as a child, and his mother peeled it off with salt.  For many that might have been a life scarring experience, but he became besotted with them, and tries to kindle some spark in his readers by claiming that leeches are bespotted with beautiful colors, if you would only take the time to look closely at them before ripping the leech off in revulsion.  Other notes of interest are that the bite of many leeches is the example replica of the insignia of a Mercedes Benz, that leeches are related to worms, are hermaphroditic, and some even care for their young tadalafil tablets prices.  Siddal recognizes that despite all this, leeches are an acquired taste. 

Siddall is in the Andes collecting leeches as part of a biodiversity study to determine where leeches originated and their patterns of spread.  He is hiking up and over a pass and is absolutely giddy with excitement as he packs up his collecting equipment, which one can only imagine is some sort of scientific version of Tupperware.  As he stands atop the ridge and sees the mountain lakes below, he says, “Shoot me now, I thought. If I’m not in heaven, I’m awfully close.”  Clearly he is in a stunning location, but one gets the sense it is more the promise of leeches that is orbiting him heavenward. 

The lure of the unknown is a powerful force, but previous explorers and naturalists have taken all the easy visually exciting stuff, like condors, pumas and others animals of prey.  What are left are the parasites of frogs or subspecies of leech, but Siddall’s display of pure intellectual curiosity in the face of revulsion and ridicule is compelling.  You also get the sense that Siddall’s intellectual rush may be mixed in a bit with dollar signs.  Leeches produce blood thinners and maybe, just maybe, Siddall can find a leech that will produce some sort of blood thinner that is easily bioengineered and will set the world of hematology on its head. 

I once had the opportunity to interview the scientist who made one of the key discoveries that simplified the process of genetic testing.  To identify genetic mutations, tiny scraps of DNA typically need to be amplified to sufficient quantities.  While it was known how to do this, it was extremely labor intensive.  The process required multiple cycles of heating and cooling, and during the heating portion, the necessary enzymes would basically get cooked and congealed, much like a hard boiled egg.  The key to automating the process was to find some sort of enzyme that could stay intact during multiple cycles of heat.  Enter a geneticist I admire greatly, but whose name I have forgotten.  I will call him Dr. Fortuitous Goes to the Bank.  Dr. FGB liked to spend his vacations hiking in Yellowstone Park, and one day was lamenting the fact that he could not get any cool clear water from the murky hot spring where he had stopped to rest.  In a life-altering eureka moment, he scooped up the water and raced back to the lab and discovered a bacterium that had been sequestered in Yellowstone Park for millions of years.  Presumably out of a dogged desire to endure, the lowly Thermus aquaticus was forced to learn how to relish hot water.  From thence, an entire industry was borne.  One can only imagine Dr. F now sipping a tall cold one as he relaxes on the patio at one of his many stunning homes.  His 1993 Nobel Prize sits on the mantle.     

The medicinal properties of leeches offer both historical and current contexts to better appreciate this relative of the worm.  Leeches were used for blood-letting for any number of ailments for thousands of years, peaking in Europe between 1830 and 1850 in Europe.  In the past, leech farmers would just stand in a swamp to collect leeches on their exposed legs.  The species Hirudo medicinalis is now largely extinct in Europe, due to the twin effects of exploitation of both the leech and its wetland environment.  Contrary to my assumption, leeches do not symbolize the putrefaction of a lake, but are another of nature’s unassuming little canaries in a cage, an early warning sign of environmental destruction. 

Medicinal leeches are now commercially bred and have even received approval from the FDA as a novelty drug delivery device.  Placed at the suture line of reconstructive surgeries, say reattaching a severed finger or other appendage (think John Wayne Bobbitt here), leeches can delivery a steady stream of anticoagulant that keeps the blood moving and prevents the appendage from falling off again.  Leech saliva has other anti-inflammatory properties, and there have been studies of using leeches to treat knee osteoarthritis.  The authors claim the treatment is successful, but it seems to me that anyone who would agree to affix six leeches to their knee would want to believe that they worked so badly that it became a self fulfilling prophecy.  There is no better example of the placebo effect than the Scarecrow, Lion and Tinman, who had come so far that they really had no other choice but to believe the wizard.  But at $10.00 a pop these leeches are one of the last best medical bargains.  Of course, you could come full circle and stand out in a swamp up to your knees and perhaps get the same effect.

Leeches USA ( provides other endearing factoids.  Leeches are low maintenance – they only need to be fed once a year after a blood meal, although the company is quick to note that the leeches are for single use only.  They typically fall off the body after about 70 minutes.  Planned obsolescence is an excellent strategy for the supplier, since treatment may last for several days.  At first glance the logo of the parent French company appears to be similar to the symbol of medicine – that thing that looks like a snake coiled around a stick.  However, on closer inspection you see that the logo is actually two entwined hermaphroditic leeches that are mating.  Leeches USA also provides all sorts of case histories complete with lurid pictures.  A search of the medical literature produces another case history that was probably published for the ick factor alone.  Some poor guy chomped down on his tongue in a car accident, and to help with the reattachment the doctor put leeches in the patient’s mouth (who was hopefully unconscious at this point).  The authors then described how they had to carefully monitor the patient to make sure that the leeches “did not migrate down the throat.”

The missing words in the following poem are anagrama (like post, stop, post).  The number of dashes indicates the number of letters.  One of the missing words will rhyme with the preceding or following line.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

For blood brothers, it signifies a bond of both head and heart

And —- the pact that says “from death do us part.”

If you are blood thirsty, you have a taste for meat, and want to dig right in,

And rip away the tasty flesh and suck on the bones beneath the —-.

“Blood is thicker than water” means you value your —- more than your kith,

It also defines the people you have to share your holidays with.

But for the subversive leech, blood is just the stuff of each and every meal,

First they —- their teeth into your flesh and then suck with unbridled zeal.





inks, skin, kins, sink

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