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University professor's professional life turns on the fate of a colony of worms whose purpose is to die for science.

June 25, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

Don Reish hates killing worms without a reason.

It bothered him, for instance, when a graduate student with whom he was working ground 75 of them in a blender for use in an experiment. And he winced when another student devoured them with spaghetti to see if they were edible.

"I didn't know whether anything would be accomplished," said the biology professor at California State University, Long Beach.

There is, however, one fatal use for worms that he considers kosher. It is to drop them into an aquarium full of sludge to determine whether the material is toxic. If they die, it is. If they don't, it isn't.

"I don't just kill them," Reish said. "I feel they have a purpose."

Actually two purposes. One is to allow industrial consultants to determine whether the sludge--or mud--dredged up during harbor excavations is potentially dangerous to marine life. The other is to make money.

Since 1964, Reish has raised more than 350,000 of the creatures for profit. Not just any worm, however. His passion is Neanthes arenaceodentata, a type of marine segmented worm--or polychaete--that lives in the ocean and can reach a length of 2 1/2 inches.

"Worms have been a part of my life," the 63-year-old professor said. "I have an emotional attachment. My entire professional life has been centered on worms."

In fact, his love affair with them began in 1953 when he inadvertently stumbled onto a handful of the Neanthes in a pail he had left hanging in the ocean as part of another experiment. Though the worms had been identified in Europe, according to Reish, he believes he was the first to discover them in the Pacific.

"I was surprised and excited," he recalled. Particularly fascinating, he said, is their method of reproduction: a ritual in which the female of the species dies before her babies are hatched, leaving the male to feed and nurture the young until they reach adulthood.

It makes it easier to raise them in the lab, he said, because "the father is taking care of them, which saves you a lot of trouble."

But it was not until more than a decade later that Reish began a colony of his own. Starting with six individual worms caught in Los Angeles Harbor, he is now raising the 100th generation of their descendants in a battery of aquariums and jars lining two specially-equipped labs on the CSULB campus. Once a week he feeds them ground-up green algae skimmed from the top of the nearby Colorado Lagoon. Other than that, he says, he lets nature take its course.

"They're easy," the professor said. "I get graduate students to help."

Some of the offspring are used for his own research--he has written about and studied the worm's life cycle for years. Reish sells about 10,000 a year to mail-order customers from Texas to Amsterdam who use them for purposes ranging from measuring the effect of low-level radiation on marine reproductive systems, to the much more common toxicity experiments aimed at determining whether sludge dredged up during harbor expansion projects can be safely returned to the ocean.

"When I started out," Reish said, "people didn't know why (polychaetes) should be studied. Now they (are) included in (most) marine environmental studies."

To fill orders, Reish and his students pack the worms into tiny plastic bags filled with seawater and green algae. They are rushed to their destinations by Federal Express. Priced at 75 cents apiece, the worms are packed five to a bag--that allows Reish's crew to complete about 20 bags an hour. The only failure so far, he said, came several years ago when a 400-worm shipment got stranded for three days in a Chicago snowstorm. "They froze to death," the professor said.

The worms have netted about $60,000 since 1978, Reish said, most of which has been spent on instructional and lab equipment for use in his classes. As far as he knows, he said, his is the only commercial distribution service for Neanthes arenaceodentatas in the country, a distinction that some years ago prompted colleagues at the university to dub him "Chief Worm."

Reish accepts the acclaim modestly. "Anyone likes to have an impact," he said. "You like to know that you've had some little impact on humanity."

But after peaking in about 1983, he said, his business has been winding down lately. Reish attributes that to two factors: governments are less environmentally conscious than they were a few years ago, and many of the major harbor expansion projects for which he supplied worms have now been completed.

Yet he watches over his polychaetes like a parent. "It's important that the colony continue," he said. Perhaps, he mused, some bright graduate student will want to take over the burden when he retires. For if the truth be admitted, he already is dreaming of starting a new colony with a different sort of worm.

"What I'd really like to do," the professor said, "is get into the fish bait business."

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