Olson Lab

Department of Life Sciences, The Natural History Museum, London SW7 5BD United Kingdom

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Planarians to Parasitism:
A research program in the developmental biology of NTDs

Parasitic flatworms comprise a large group of extraordinarily diverse animals that includes some of the most significant Neglected Tropical Diseases of ourselves and our domesticated animals, such as bloodflukes (Schistosoma) and tapeworms (Taenia, Echinococcus). We have developed the beetle/rodent-hosted tapeworm Hymenolepis microstoma as a tractable laboratory model for studying the development, genomics and evolution of these parasites.

Planarians are free-living cousins of parasitic flatworms that have served as powerful models of regeneration and stem cell biology for well over a century. Unlike most animals, including ourselves, flatworms maintain pluripotent stem cells throughout their lives, enabling both whole-body regeneration and ‘immortal’ growth. Although free-living and parasitic animals have been studied historically in separate fields of science, contemporary knowledge demonstrates that this approach has been misguided and a hindrance to understanding the biology of both types of organisms.

Our research aims to understand parasitic flatworms in the context of their natural animal affinities and draws heavily on our understanding of the gene regulatory networks that underpin development and regeneration in planarians. In this way, our work contributes to global efforts to control and eradicate the NTDs that diminish our health and economy.


We are grateful to the Natural History Museum, BBSRC, The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, The Royal Society, Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission, National Science Foundation and additional funding bodies for their generous support of our work.
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Olson PD, J Hughes and JA Cotton. 2016.
Next Generation Systematics. Cambridge University Press 356 p. PUBLICATIONS

Koziol et al. 2016.
Comparative analysis of Wnt expression identifies a highly conserved developmental transition in flatworms. BMC Biology PUBLICATIONS

Muehlenbachs et al. 2015.
Malignant transformation of Hymenolepis nana in a human host. New England Journal of Medicine PUBLICATIONS


4th European Meeting on Planarian Biology, Sant Feliu de Guixols, Catalonia, Spain, 25-27 September

ISOMORPHOLOGY: An introduction to the art and science of Gemma Anderson

READ Alessandro Minelli’s commentary “The tapeworm’s elusive antero-posterior polarity” regarding our work published in BMC Biology.

BBC, NPR television and radio interviews regarding New England Journal of Medicine publication: “How did man die of cancer from a tapeworm?


Available Now! Next Generation Systematics 2016. PD Olson, J Hughes and JA Cotton (ed.). Cambridge University Press

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Now Accepting Submissions: "Planarians to Parasitism: Evolution, Development and Stem Cells in Flatworms" Special EvoDevo + Parasites & Vectors Thematic Volume READ