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‘Dune’ sandworms: Fact vs fiction with a U worm wrangler

For Michael Werner, a science fiction fan and biologist whose research focuses on a roundworm called a nematode, “Dune” is peak entertainment. Since Frank Herbert published the first “Dune” novel in 1965, the epic story has inspired David Lynch’s 1984 cult classic, two SciFi Channel miniseries and director Denis Villeneuve’s most recent 2021 and 2024 film adaptations. It also shaped a young Werner’s worldview.

“Science fiction allows the reader to explore different aspects of the near possible, that’s the science part, but also fantasy, and that’s the fiction part. The best science fiction writers explore the different facets of the human condition, like love and loss and oppression and tyranny. “I found these existential questions to be really inspiring when I was thinking about different career paths and made me excited to pursue science as a possible future,” said Werner now an assistant professor in the U’s School of Biological Sciences.

Michael Werner sits in front of a green screen wearing all black.


Michael Werner in front of a green screen at the J. Willard Marriott Library Video Studio, talking about his two loves—”Dune” and worms.

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To Werner, “Dune” is the best example of science fiction. The story takes place thousands of years into the future in an interstellar society where a handful of noble houses control planetary fiefdoms. The action begins when Paul Atreides’ family is ordered to steward Arrakis, an inhospitable desert planet Indigenous to the Fremen people. Arrakis is the only source of “spice,” the most valuable compound in this fictional universe that extends life, enhances mental abilities, and facilitates intergalactic travel. The epic explores themes of politics, religion, ecology, technology and birthed the most infamous creatures in fiction—Shai-Hulud, the massive worms that swim through the planet’s oceans of sand and produce mélange deposits that the characters refer to as spice.

When the first “Dune” movie was released in 2021, Werner wrote about the science of sandworms and their Earthly counterparts for the Salt Lake Tribune. On March 13, 2024, Werner’s lab published a study about worms living in a different inhospitable place—his lab discovered that nematodes live in the Great Salt Lake. Previously, only two multicellular animals had been known to inhabit the notoriously salty ecosystem.

@theU spoke with Werner about the science behind the sandworms of “Dune.” “I’ve thought a lot about this because I love ‘Dune’ and I love worms,” he said.

Why do you love “Dune”?

“Dune” is one of these amazing blendings of real science—there’s a ton of ecology—with the core, the foundation of this story is really the concern about how absolute power can corrupt absolutely.

Also, the worms are really, really cool.

Could a worm be that big?

It’s written in the books that they’re supposedly adults at 400 meters long, or about four football fields in size. The largest animal that has ever lived is actually living with us today. It’s a blue whale. It’s not a dinosaur, as some people might assume. Blue whales are also enormous. They weigh about 300,000 to 400,000 pounds. But those sand worms of Arrakis would weigh in at approximately 4.4 billion pounds. So they would dwarf even the blue whales of today.

The analogous worms that we have on earth are invertebrates. They don’t have a skeletal system to support that massive weight. The largest worm that I am aware of is an nematode that inhabits the placenta of sperm whales. This nematode is about 28 feet long and it has an amazing name—Placentonema gigantissima.

“Dune” sandworms hunt by following rhythmic vibrations on the sand. Do worms of Earth use vibrations to hunt?

That’s actually a fascinating question, and the answer is yes! There are parasitic nematodes that can try to find their hosts, their insect hosts, by sensing vibrations in the soil. In a way it’s a little bit eerie, but the experiment that was done to test that, the substrate that was used was sand itself.

Do worms really have teeth?

The sort of spiral of teeth that you see in the sand worms of Arrakis—haven’t seen a structure that looks exactly like that in an nematode, but there are so many diverse forms of teeth within nematodes. I have seen things like that. Some worms that parasitize plants actually have a stylet. It’s sort of like a sword that ejects from their mouth and pierces through the cell wall of plants so they can start ingesting some of the nutrients inside the plant.

Do worms make beneficial compounds, like the “Dune” sandworms make spice?

I guess again, the answer remarkably is yes! Spice enables people to live extraordinarily long lives and somehow, and it’s not particularly well explained, also enables interstellar travel. Nematodes produce these small compounds called ascarocides that can do a number of amazing things, one of which is actually increase the longevity or adult lifespan of nematodes desert power. They can also be used for mate attraction or repulsion.

Can they be used for interstellar travel? That remains to be determined.