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Unidentified roundworm from wet soil. The mouth is at the top left corner.
Unidentified roundworm from wet soil.
The mouth is at the top left corner.
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Subkingdom: Eumetazoa
(unranked) Bilateria
Phylum: Nematoda
Diesing, 1861
  • Adenophorea
  • Secernentea

and see text


Nematoidea Rudolphi, 1808
Nematodes Burmeister, 1837
Nemates Cobb, 1919
Nemata Cobb, 1919

The "roundworms" or "nematodes" (phylum Nematoda) are the most diverse phylum of pseudocoelomates, and one of the most diverse of all animals. Nematode species are very difficult to distinguish; over 28,000 have been described,[1] of which over 16,000 are parasitic. It has been estimated that the total number of described and undescribed roundworms might be more than 500,000. Unlike cnidarians or flatworms, roundworms have a digestive system that is like a tube with openings at both ends.


Nematodes have successfully adapted to nearly every ecological niche from marine to fresh water, from the polar regions to the tropics, as well as the highest to the lowest of elevations. They are ubiquitous in freshwater, marine, and terrestrial environments, where they often outnumber other animals in both individual and species counts, and are found in locations as diverse as Antarctica and oceanic trenches. They represent, for example, 90% of all life on the seafloor of the Earth.[2] Their many parasitic forms include pathogens in most plants and animals (including humans.) Some nematodes can undergo cryptobiosis.

Taxonomy and systematics[]

File:Eophasma jurasicum.JPG

Eophasma jurasicum, an extinct nematode

The group was originally defined by Karl Rudolphi in 1808[3] under the name Nematoidea, from Ancient Greek νῆμα (nêma, nêmatos, 'thread') and -eiδἠς (-eidēs, 'like'). The vernacular word "nematode" is a corruption of this taxon, reclassified as family Nematodes by Burmeister in 1837[3] and order Nematoda by K. M. Diesing in 1861[3].

At the origin, the "Nematoidea" included both roundworms and horsehair worms. Along with Acanthocephala, Trematoda and Cestoidea, it formed the group Entozoa.[4] The first differentiation of roundworms from horsehair worms, though erroneous, is due to von Siebold (1843) with orders Nematoidea and Gordiacei (Gordiacea). They were classed along with Acanthocephala in the new phylum Nemathelminthes (today obsolete) by Gegenbaur (1859). Then the taxon Nematoidea has been promoted to the rank of phylum by Ray Lankester (1877) including the family Gordiidae (horsehair worms). In 1919, Nathan Cobb proposed that roundworms should be recognized alone as a phylum. He argued that they should be called nema(s) in English rather than "nematodes"[5] and defined the taxon Nemates (Latin plural of nema). For ITIS, the taxon Nematoda is invalid[6]. Since Cobb was the first to exclude all but nematodes from the group, the valid taxon should be Nemates Cobb 1919 or Nemata Cobb 1919.



The mysterious Gastrotricha seem to hold the key to the "Ecdysozoa debate", but they have been little studied.
Whether they are relatives of the nematodes is still unknown.

The relationships of the nematodes and their close relatives among the protostomian Metazoa are unresolved. Traditionally, they were held to be a lineage of their own, but in the 1990s it was proposed that they form a clade together with moulting animals such as arthropods. This group has been named Ecdysozoa. However, the monophyly of the Ecdysozoa was never unequivocally accepted: while most researchers consider at least the placement of arthropods as more distant relatives of annelids — with which they were formerly united — to be warranted, the presumed close relationships of the nematodes and relatives with the arthropods has been a major point of contention.[7]

Even though the amount of data since accumulated in regard to this problem is staggering, the situation seems if anything less clear these days. DNA sequence data, initially strongly supporting the Ecdysozoa hypothesis, has become rather equivocal on ecdysozoan monophyly, and is simply unable to refute either a close or a more distant relationship between the arthropod and nematode lineages. That the roundworms have a large number of peculiar apomorphies and in many cases a parasitic lifestyle confounds morphological analyses. Genetic analyses of roundworms[citation needed] suggest that — as is also indicated by their unique morphological features — the group has been under intense selective pressure during its early radiation, resulting apparently in accelerated rates of both morphological and molecular evolution. Furthermore, no distinctive apomorphies of Ecdysozoa are known; even moulting has recently been confirmed to occur outside the presumed clade.[7]

Conversely, the identity of the closest living relatives of the Nematoda has always been considered to be well resolved. Morphological characters and molecular phylogenies agree with placement of the roundworms as sister taxon to the parasitic horsehair worms (Nematomorpha); together they make up the Nematoida. Together with the Scalidophora (formerly Cephalorhyncha), the Nematoida form the Introverta. It is entirely unclear whether the Introverta are, in turn, the closest living relatives of the enigmatic Gastrotricha; if so, they are considered a clade Cycloneuralia, but there is much disagreement both between and among the available morphological and molecular data. The Cycloneuralia or the Introverta — depending on the validity of the former — are often ranked as a superphylum.[7]

Nematode systematics[]

Due to the lack of knowledge regarding many nematodes, their systematics is contentious. Traditionally, they are divided into two classes, the Adenophorea and the Secernentea, and initial DNA sequence studies[verification needed] suggested the existence of five clades:[8]

  • Dorylaimia
  • Enoplia
  • Spirurina
  • Tylenchina
  • Rhabditina

As it seems, the Secernentea are indeed a natural group of closest relatives. But the "Adenophorea" appear to be a paraphyletic assemblage of roundworms simply retaining a good number of ancestral traits. The Enoplia do not seem to be monophyletic either but to contain two distinct lineages. The old group "Chromadoria" seem to be another paraphyletic assemblage, with the Monhysterida representing a very ancient minor group of nematodes. Among the Secernentea, the Diplogasteria may need to be united with the Rhabditia. while the Tylenchia might be paraphyletic with the Rhabditia.[9]

The understanding of roundworm systematics and phylogeny as of 2002 is summarised below:

Phylum Nematoda

  • Basal order Monhysterida
  • Basal subclass/Class Enoplia
  • Basal subclass/Class Dorylaimia
  • Class Secernentea
    • Subclass Diplogasteria (disputed)
    • Subclass Rhabditia (paraphyletic?)
    • Subclass Spiruria
    • Subclass Tylenchia (disputed)
  • "Chromadoria" assemblage


Nematodes are slender, worm-like animals, typically less than Template:Convert/mmTemplate:Convert/test/A long. The smallest nematodes are microscopic, while free-living species can reach as much as Template:Convert/cmTemplate:Convert/test/A and some parasitic species are larger still. The body is often ornamented with ridges, rings, warts, bristles or other distinctive structures.[10]

The head of a nematode is relatively distinctive. Whereas the rest of the body is bilaterally symmetrical, the head is radially symmetrical, with sensory bristles and, in many cases, solid head-shields radiating outwards around the mouth. The mouth has either three or six lips, which often bear a series of teeth on their inner edge. An adhesive caudal gland is often found at the tip of the tail.[10]

The epidermis is either a syncytium or a single layer of cells, and is covered by a thick collagenous cuticle. The cuticle is often of complex structure, and may have two or three distinct layers. Underneath the epidermis lies a layer of muscle cells. Projections run from the inner surface of these cells towards the nerve cords; this is a unique arrangement in the animal kingdom, in which nerve cells normally send extend fibres into the muscles rather than vice versa.[10]

The muscle layer surrounds the body cavity, which is filled with a fluid that lacks any form of blood cells. The gut runs down the centre of the cavity.[10]

Digestive system[]

The oral cavity is lined with cuticle, which is often strengthened with ridges or other structures, and, especially in carnivorous species, may bear a number of teeth. The mouth often includes a sharp stylet which the animal can thrust into its prey. In some species, the stylet is hollow, and can be used to suck liquids from plants or animals.[10]

The oral cavity opens into a muscular sucking pharynx, also lined with cuticle. Digestive glands are found in this region of the gut, producing enzymes that start to break down the food. In stylet-bearing species, these may even be injected into the prey.[10]

There is no stomach, with the pharynx connecting directly to the intestine that forms the main length of the gut. This produces further enzymes, and also absorbs nutrients through its lining. The last portion of the intestine is lined by cuticle, forming a rectum which expels waste through the anus just below and in front of the tip of the tail. The intestine also has valves or sphincters at either end to help control the movement of food through the body.[10]

Excretory system[]

Nitrogenous waste is excreted in the form of ammonia through the body wall, and is not associated with any specific organs. However, the structures for excreting salt to maintain osmoregulation are typically more complex.[10]

In many marine nematodes, there are one or two unicellular renette glands that excrete salt through a pore on the underside of the animal, close to the pharynx. In most other nematodes, these specialised cells have been replaced by an organ consisting of two parallel ducts connected by a single transverse duct. This transverse duct opens into a common canal that runs to the excretory pore.[10]

Nervous system[]

Main article: Nervous system of the nematode

Four nerves run the length of the body on the dorsal, ventral, and lateral surfaces. Each nerve lies within a cord of connective tissue lying beneath the cuticle and between the muscle cells. The ventral nerve is the largest, and has a double structure forward of the excretory pore. The dorsal nerve is responsible for motor control, while the lateral nerves are sensory, and the ventral combines both functions.[10]

At the anterior end of the animal, the nerves branch from a dense circular nerve ring surrounding the pharynx, and serving as the brain. Smaller nerves run forward from the ring to supply the sensory organs of the head.[10]

The body of nematodes is covered in numerous sensory bristles and papillae that together provide a sense of touch. Behind the sensory bristles on the head lie two small pits, or amphids. These are well supplied with nerve cells, and are probably chemoreception organs. A few aquatic nematodes possess what appear to be pigmented eye-spots, but is unclear whether or not these are actually sensory in nature.[10]


Most nematode species are dioecious, with separate male and female individuals. Both sexes possess one or two tubular gonads. In males, the sperm are produced at the end of the gonad, and migrate along its length as they mature. The testes each open into a relatively wide sperm duct and then into a glandular and muscular ejaculatory duct associated with the cloaca. In females, the ovaries each open into an oviduct and then a glandular uterus. The uteri both open into a common vagina, usually located in the middle of the ventral surface.[10]

Reproduction is usually sexual. Males are usually smaller than females (often much smaller) and often have a characteristically bent tail for holding the female for copulation. During copulation, one or more chitinized spicules move out of the cloaca and are inserted into genital pore of the female. Amoeboid sperm crawl along the spicule into the female worm. Nematode sperm is thought to be the only eukaryotic cell without the globular protein G-actin.

Eggs may be embryonated or unembryonated when passed by the female, meaning that their fertilized eggs may not yet be developed. A few species are known to be ovoviviparous. The eggs are protected by an outer shell, secreted by the uterus. In free-living roundworms, the eggs hatch into larva, which appear essentially identical to the adults, except for an under-developed reproductive system; in parasitic roundworms, the life cycle is often much more complicated.[10]

Nematodes as a whole possess a wide range of modes of reproduction.[11] Some nematodes, such as Heterorhabditis spp., undergo a process called endotokia matricida: intrauterine birth causing maternal death.[12] Some nematodes are hermaphroditic, and keep their self-fertilized eggs inside the uterus until they hatch. The juvenile nematodes will then ingest the parent nematode. This process is significantly promoted in environments with a low or reducing food supply.[12]

The nematode model species Caenorhabditis elegans and C. briggsae exhibit androdioecy, which is very rare among animals. The single genus Meloidogyne (root-knot nematodes) exhibit a range of reproductive modes including sexual reproduction, facultative sexuality (in which most, but not all, generations reproduce asexually), and both meiotic and mitotic parthenogenesis.

The genus Mesorhabditis exhibits an unusual form of parthenogenesis, in which sperm-producing males copulate with females, but the sperm do not fuse with the ovum. Contact with the sperm is essential for the ovum to begin dividing, but because there is no fusion of the cells, the male contributes no genetic material to the offspring, which are essentially clones of the female.[10]

Free-living species[]

In free-living species, development usually consists of four molts of the cuticle during growth. Different species feed on materials as varied as algae, fungi, small animals, fecal matter, dead organisms and living tissues. Free-living marine nematodes are important and abundant members of the meiobenthos. They play an important role in the decomposition process, aid in recycling of nutrients in marine environments and are sensitive to changes in the environment caused by pollution. One roundworm of note is Caenorhabditis elegans, which lives in the soil and has found much use as a model organism. C. elegans has had its entire genome sequenced, as well as the developmental fate of every cell determined, and every neuron mapped.

Parasitic species[]

Nematodes commonly parasitic on humans include ascarids (Ascaris), filarids, hookworms, pinworms (Enterobius) and whipworms (Trichuris trichiura). The species Trichinella spiralis, commonly known as the trichina worm, occurs in rats, pigs, and humans, and is responsible for the disease trichinosis. Baylisascaris usually infests wild animals but can be deadly to humans as well. Dirofilaria immitus are Heartworms known for causing Heartworm disease by inhabiting the hearts, arteries, and lungs of dogs and some cats. Haemonchus contortus is one of the most abundant infectious agents in sheep around the world, causing great economic damage to sheep farms. In contrast, entomopathogenic nematodes parasitize insects and are considered by humans to be beneficial.

One form of nematode is entirely dependent upon fig wasps, which are the sole source of fig fertilization. They prey upon the wasps, riding them from the ripe fig of the wasp's birth to the fig flower of its death, where they kill the wasp, and their offspring await the birth of the next generation of wasps as the fig ripens.

File:Soybean cyst nematode and egg SEM.jpg

Colorized electron micrograph of soybean cyst nematode (Heterodera sp.) and egg

Plant parasitic nematodes include several groups causing severe crop losses. The most common genera are Aphelenchoides (foliar nematodes), Ditylenchus, Globodera (potato cyst nematodes), Heterodera (soybean cyst nematodes), Longidorus, Meloidogyne (root-knot nematodes), Nacobbus, Pratylenchus (lesion nematodes), Trichodorus and Xiphinema (dagger nematodes). Several phytoparasitic nematode species cause histological damages to roots, including the formation of visible galls (e.g. by root-knot nematodes), which are useful characters for their diagnostic in the field. Some nematode species transmit plant viruses through their feeding activity on roots. One of them is Xiphinema index, vector of GFLV (Grapevine Fanleaf Virus), an important disease of grapes.

Other nematodes attack bark and forest trees. The most important representative of this group is Bursaphelenchus xylophilus, the pine wood nematode, present in Asia and America and recently discovered in Europe.

Nematodes in agriculture[]

Depending on the species, a nematode may be beneficial or detrimental to plant health.

From an agricultural perspective, there are two categories of nematode: predatory ones, which will kill garden pests like cutworms, and pest nematodes, like the root-knot nematode, which attack plants and those that act as vectors spreading plant viruses between crop plants.

Predatory nematodes can be bred by soaking a specific recipe of leaves and other detritus in water, in a dark, cool place, and can even be purchased as an organic form of pest control.

Rotations of plants with nematode resistant species or varieties is one means of managing parasitic nematode infestations. For example, marigolds, grown over one or more seasons (the effective is cumulative), can be used to control nematodes.[13] Another is treatment with natural antagonists such as the fungus gliocladium roseum. Chitosan is a natural biocontrol that elicits plant defense responses to destroy parasitic cyst nematodes on roots of sobyean, corn, sugar beets, potatoes and tomatoes without harming beneficial nematodes in the soil.[14]. Furthermore soil steaming is an efficient method to kill nematodes before planting crop.

CSIRO has found [1] that there was 13- to 14-fold reduction of nematode population densities in plots having Indian mustard (Brassica juncea) green manure or seed meal in the soil.

Hundreds of Caenorhabditis elegans were featured in a research project on NASA's STS-107 space mission (which ended in the Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster).[15]


File:Intestinal nematode infections world map - DALY - WHO2002.svg

Disability-adjusted life year for intestinal nematode infections per 100,000 inhabitants in 2002.

██ no data ██ less than 25 ██ 25-50 ██ 50-75 ██ 75-100 ██ 100-120 ██ 120-140 ██ 140-160 ██ 160-180 ██ 180-200 ██ 200-220 ██ 220-240 ██ more than 240

A number of intestinal nematodes affect human beings. These include ascariasis, trichuriasis and hookworm disease.

See also[]

  • Ascariasis: A human disease caused by the parasitic roundworm Ascaris lumbricoides
  • Chitosan (Natural Biocontrol for Agricultural & Horticultural use of nematodes)
  • Caenorhabditis elegans: An important model organism often used to study cellular differentiation, sometimes simply referred to as "worm" by scientists.
  • List of parasites (human)
  • Toxocariasis: A helminth infection of humans caused by the dog or cat roundworm, Toxocara canis or Toxocara cati


  1. Hugot et al. (2001)
  2. Genova (2007)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 B. G. Chitwood, 1957, Phylum name.
  4. M. R. Sidiqqi, 1986, Tylenchida, parasites of plants and insects
  5. Note that words as nematologist, nematosis, nematocide, etc. are based on nema, nematos and not on "nematode".
  6. ITIS report: Nematoda
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 ToL (2002a)
  8. Blaxter et al. (1998)
  9. ToL (2002b)
  10. 10.00 10.01 10.02 10.03 10.04 10.05 10.06 10.07 10.08 10.09 10.10 10.11 10.12 10.13 10.14 Barnes, Robert D. (1982). Invertebrate Zoology, 288–307, Philadelphia, PA: Holt-Saunders International.
  11. Bell G (1982)
  12. 12.0 12.1 Johnigk & Ehlers (1999)
  13. Riotte, Louise (1975). Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening.
  14. Stoner R., Linden J., Micronutrient elicitor for treating nematodes in field crops, 2006, Patent Pending, Pub. no.: US 2008/0072494 A1.
  15. BBC News (2003)


  • Atkinson, H.J. (1973): The Respiratory Physiology of the Marine Nematodes Enoplus brevis (Bastian) and E. communis (Bastian): I. The Influence of Oxygen Tension and Body Size. J. Exp. Biol. 59(1): 255–266. PDF fulltext
  • BBC News (2003): Worms survived Columbia disaster. Version of 2003-MAY-01. Retrieved 2008-NOV-04.
  • Bell, G (1982): The Masterpiece of Nature: The Evolution and Genetics of Sexuality. University of California Press.
  • Blaxter, M.L.; De Ley, P.; Garey, J.R.; Liu, L.X.; Scheldeman, P.; Vierstraete, A.; Vanfleteren, J.R.; Mackey, L.Y.; Dorris M.; Frisse, L.M.; Vida, J.T.; Thomas, W.K. (1998): A molecular evolutionary framework for the phylum Nematoda. Nature 392: 71–75. DOI:10.1038/32160 (HTML abstract)
  • Genova, Cathleen (2007): Deep-sea species' loss could lead to oceans' collapse, study suggests. Version of 2007-DEC-27. Retrieved 2008-NOV-04.
  • Gubanov, N.M. (1951): "Giant nematoda from the placenta of Cetacea; Placentonema gigantissima nov. gen., nov. sp.". Proc. USSR Acad. Sci. 77(6): 1123–1125 [in Russian].
  • Hugot, J.P.; Baujard, P. & Morand, S. (2001): Biodiversity in helminths and nematodes as a field of study: an overview. Nematology 3: 199-208. DOI:10.1163/156854101750413270 (HTML abstract)
  • Johnigk, Stefan-Andreas & Ehlers, Ralf-Udo (1999): Endotokia matricida in hermaphrodites of Heterorhabditis spp. and the effect of the food supply. Nematology 1(7–8): 717–726. DOI:10.1163/156854199508748 (HTML abstract)
  • Merck Veterinary Manual (MVM) (2006): Giant Kidney Worm Infection in Mink and Dogs. Retrieved 2007-FEB-10.
  • Tree of Life Web Project (ToL) (2002a): Bilateria. Version of 2002-JAN-01. Retrieved 2008-NOV-02.
  • Tree of Life Web Project (ToL) (2002b): Nematoda. Version of 2002-JAN-01. Retrieved 2008-NOV-02.
  • White, J.G.; Southgate, Eileen; Thomson, J.n. & Brenner, S. (1976)): The Structure of the Ventral Nerve Cord of Caenorhabditis elegans. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. B 275(938): 327–348. PDF fulltext

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