It’s the plot of every zombie horror story. Humans are infected by parasites that take over their brains. In one tale, M.R. Carey’s “The Girl with All the Gifts,” the victims also end up as hosts for the parasites’ plant spores.
Here’s the scariest part: there is an actual parasite that does this.
The pathogen is Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, also known as “zombie fungus.” The good news is that the parasite only targets ants. The bad news is that it is terrifying.
The fungus attacks the victim’s brain and nervous system to take over its behavior. The zombified ant is mind-controlled into leaving its colony for an environment where the fungus can reproduce. The fungus consumes the ant’s internal organs before erupting a plant-like stalk out of the ant’s head. Then, this stalk releases spores in a 10-foot “kill zone” to attack other ants.
(You can google photos of this – I won’t share any here. But I warn you: they will give you nightmares.)
In the first study, researchers looked into how zombie fungus is able to control the behavior of its victims. They discovered that O. unilateralis expresses a set of unique genes into the brains of infected ants. These genes inhibit the ants’ immune and stress responses, as well as its chemosensory communications processes.
In the second study, researchers examined five different Ophiocordyceps species across three continents. They discovered that candidate manipulation genes are not shared between species, suggesting that different methods of behavior modification have evolved.
In the third study, researchers noted that behavioral manipulation occurs at certain times of day. Using bioinformatics and transcriptional profiling, they discovered that zombie fungus secretes a significant number of enzymes, toxins and bioactive compounds during the nighttime.
Nighttime? Sounds like a classic zombie horror story!
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For more information go to:
- The Girl with All the Gifts (Orbit Books)
- The Girl with all the Gifts: The REAL science behind the new zombie apocalypse film everyone’s talking about (UK Mirror)
- Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (Microbe Wiki)
- Gene expression during zombie ant biting behavior reflects the complexity underlying fungal parasitic behavioral manipulation
- Ant-infecting Ophiocordyceps genomes reveal a high diversity of potential behavioral manipulation genes and a possible major role for enterotoxins
- Daily rhythms and enrichment patterns in the transcriptome of the behavior-manipulating parasite Ophiocordyceps kimflemingiae
- Agilent Bioanalyzer Instrument
- Agilent Bioanalyzer RNA Analysis
- Agilent Bioanalyzer DNA Analysis