A Factory Makes Millions Of Man-Eating Worms (To Save Us From Man-Eating Worms)
In the 1950s, the southern United States had a problem: worms which fed on flesh. Human flesh, sometimes -- their scientific name, Cochliomyia hominivorax, literally means "snail fly that consumes man." But at least when humans notice maggots in an open wound or smell their injured legs decaying, they tend to give their doctor a call and get that sorted out. Animals, however, are more likely to let those parasites eat freely and kill their host. That's why this pest, commonly known as the screwworm, used to kill millions of dollars' worth of cattle every year. They killed pets too, and deer, but it was their effect on our burger supply that really made us sit up and seek a way out.
You do not mess with our cows.
Applying comic book logic, scientists tried treating the worms with radiation, and they discovered something promising. Radiated male worms grow up healthy but sterile. If we release a whole lot of these sterile worms, they beat fertile males when it comes to nabbing females. Each female mates just once, so hooking up with a blank-shooting male means she lays no eggs. Over the course of about a decade, the Department of Agriculture released more and more of these sterilized worms and, amazingly, eradicated these Hamburglers from the U.S.
By 1991, Mexico was free of the worm too, and Central America followed after that. South America, however, proved trickier to liberate. And so long as the worm exists down there, it can creep back north and multiply -- unless we put some kind of barrier in its way. If you're thinking "border wall," well, we kind of already built that. It's called the Panama Canal. But canals and walls are no use against the screwworm because, in its final form, it flies through the air. What we really needed was a live barrier made of those sterilized males. And since they can't reproduce, we'd have to keep replenishing the barrier with more and more radiated bugs.
Just a few million more of these every Tuesday, and we should be good.
So that's what we did. We'd been churning out these worms in Texas and then Mexico, and now we set up a plant in Panama to make more worms 24/7. The hatching room simulates conditions in an infected animal, the sterilization chamber blasts radioactive cobalt, and between the two, the worms swarm and feed. Originally, we fed them meat, but that costs too much, so we switched to milk, egg ... and thousands of gallons of blood.
Those of you who've heard about other crazy interventions into nature know two ways this story ends. Either we give up when the whole operation just fails, or the operation backfires and creates tiny Dracula flies. But so far, this story doesn't end at all. We're still maintaining the worm barrier today, and we're managing very well. Every week, the plant produces 20 million worms, and U.S. planes dump them into the buffer zone.
It costs about $15 million a year but saves American farmers $1.3 billion in losses. And anytime a few worms get by and seem ready to take over (say, in Florida), we have defenses prepared to wipe them out. Can we try the same thing to free us from other insects -- like Florida mosquitoes, for instance? It's certainly worth a shot.
The U.K. Must Constantly Monitor A Sunken Ship's Kiloton Of Explosives
The United States was cranking out loads of munitions during World War II. And so in August 1944, a ship known as the SS Richard Montgomery set off across the Atlantic with a massive supply of explosives. It was bound for France but made a quick stopover in England (to do some sightseeing and have dinner with Reginald, probably). It found itself in an estuary of the Thames a lot more shallow than it was used to and got stuck on a sandbank. When the tide went out, the heavy ship, still perched on this tiny spot, cracked in two. It's still there today ... and so are its explosives.
Those are its masts. Like we said, this is shallow water.