Monday, October 5, 2015

How Fungus Makes Ant Zombies

"Ants biting the underside of leaves as a result of infection
by O. unilateralis. The top panel shows the whole leaf with
the dense surrounding vegetation in the background and the
lower panel shows a close up view of dead ant attached to
a leaf vein. The stroma of the fungus emerges from the back
of the ant's head and the perithecia, from which spores are
produced, grows from one side of this stroma, hence the
species epithet. The photograph has been rotated
to aid visualization." Image and caption by David P. Hughes
and Maj-Britt Pontoppidan at Wikimedia Commons.
The parasitic fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis sensu latu (O. unilateralis, for short), infects the brains of Carpenter ants, turning them into zombies that live and die for the sole purpose of helping the fungus thrive and reproduce. Under the influence of the fungus, zombie Carpenter ants leave their nests at an odd yet specific time, move randomly and convulsively, and climb up the north side of a plant to almost exactly 25 cm, where they bite the leaf vein. Once they bite the leaf, the muscles of their mandibles (mouth parts) deteriorate, causing lockjaw and fixing the ant victim in place while its legs kick and twitch. After a few hours, the movement stops as the fungus kills the ant, continues to grow throughout the victim's head, and then sprouts out of the back of the head. The fungus anchors itself to the plant and releases antimicrobial chemicals to protect itself and grows fruiting bodies from the ant's head to release its spores, spawning the next generation of fungus. O. unilateralis has been known to infect and wipe out entire Carpenter ant colonies, leaving dense aerial graveyards of ant carcasses in its wake.

Today at Accumulating Glitches, I talk about new research that has used genetic techniques to determine how this parasitic fungus takes over the minds of its ant victims. Check it out here.

And to learn more, check this out:

de Bekker, C., Ohm, R.A., Loreto, R.G., Sebastian, A., Albert, I., Merrow, M., Brachmann, A. and Hughes, D.P. Gene expression during zombie ant biting behavior reflects the complexity underlying fungal parasitic behavioral manipulation, BMC Genomics, 16:620, 1-23 (2015). DOI 10.1186/s12864-015-1812-x.

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