Study Reveals How Fungal Parasite Turns Ants Into Zombies

Posted: Nov 11 2017, 3:56pm CST | by , Updated: Nov 11 2017, 4:03pm CST, in News | Latest Science News

 
Study Reveals How a Parasite Fungus Turns Ants into Zombies
Credit: Kim Fleming

3D visualization shows that zombie-ant fungus controls the muscles of ant's body, not the brain

A new study has yielded some surprising information about zombie ants and the fungus that manipulates their behavior.

Carpenter ants that come into contact with the fungus called ophiocordyceps unilateralis sensu lato start behaving like zombies and leave the nest. The infected ants, then, climb onto a piece of vegetation and bite into the underside of leaves or twigs, where they ultimately die.

It has been long thought that zombie-ant fungus controls the behavior of ants by releasing mind-altering chemicals. However new research has found that fungus accomplishes this feat without infecting the ants' brains. The fungus only attacks muscle fibers of the ant’s body, not the brain.

“The fungus is known to secrete tissue-specific metabolites and cause changes in host gene expression as well as atrophy in the mandible muscles of its ant host. The altered host behavior is an extended phenotype of the microbial parasite's genes being expressed through the body of its host. But it's unknown how the fungus coordinates these effects to manipulate the host's behavior." Lead author Maridel Fredericksen from Pennsylvania State University said in a statement.

To better understand how parasite fungus controls ant’s behavior, researchers used sophisticated technology like 3D visualization and looked into the distribution, abundance and interactions of the fungi inside the bodies of the ants at smallest levels. This use of the technology represented a breakthrough in the study of this parasite fungus’ inner workings.

3D images showed that fungus cells were present throughout virtually all regions of the host ants' bodies. Although cells were also found right outside the brain, researchers observed no fungus inside the brain.

"Normally in animals, behavior is controlled by the brain sending signals to the muscles, but our results suggest that the parasite is controlling host behavior peripherally. Almost like a puppeteer pulls the strings to make a marionette move, the fungus controls the ant's muscles to manipulate the host's legs and mandibles." said co author David Hughes, associate professor of entomology and biology, Penn State.

"We hypothesize that the fungus may be preserving the brain so the host can survive until it performs its final biting behavior—that critical moment for fungal reproduction. But we need to conduct additional research to determine the brain's role and how much control the fungus exercises over it."

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