Parasitic helminths belong to 3 separate phyla and there is always the danger of over-generalization. The various routes of anaerobic carbohydrate breakdown in parasitic helminth differ in their efficiencies and in their power output. The choice of end-product represents a compromise between these two conflicting forces. In addition, anaerobic pathways must satisfy the redox requirements of the tissues and provide a source of intermediates for synthetic reactions. Other considerations include the metabolic cost of excretion and the effect of end-products on protein structure and function. The different end-products may fulfil additional functions such as pH control, nitrogenous excretion, osmotic regulation, intracellular signalling and the suppression of host responses.
A complicating factor in parasitic helminths is the existence of strains with different biochemical characteristics, including marked variation in end-product formation. The various tissues of the same parasite can also produce different end-products and the pattern of end-product formation is influenced by a variety of extrinsic and intrinsic factors such as age, sex, length of incubation, pO2 and availability of substrates. The catabolic pathways of helminths thus show considerable functional adaptation.
There is, as yet, no satisfactory explanation as to why helminths do not make the maximum use of any oxygen available to them; and the contribution of oxidative processes to the overall energy balance of parasites probably varies from species to species.
The catabolic pathways of adult helminths are derived from the anaerobic pathways present in their free-living relatives. Two main trends are evident, homolactic fermentation and carbon dioxide fixation, the latter involving a partial reverse tricarboxylic acid cycle. In general, homolactic fermentation is found in blood and tissue parasites, carbon dioxide fixation in gut parasites. These two types of metabolism are, of course, in no way absolute, most homolactic fermentors fix carbon dioxide to a certain extent and many parasites which fix carbon dioxide also produce lactate. Parasitic helminths possess a wide range of different catabolic pathways, superimposed upon which is a high degree of functional plasticity.