Puppeteer Parasite That Creates Zombie Ants Hijacks Their Bodies—Not Brains

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In a macabre discovery, scientists have discovered parasite, which creates armies of zombie ants, does so by hijacking their our bodies—not their brains as was beforehand thought.

The fungal parasite Ophiocordyceps unilateralis—also called zombie ant fungus—was first found by Alfred Russel Wallace within the 19th century. The parasite invades the our bodies of carpenter ant employees so as to manipulate their habits. It forces them to desert their regular actions, climb onto vegetation then chunk down onto the undersides of leaves or twigs, the place they die.

The parasite then grows by way of the ant physique and produces a stalk from the ant’s head. From this place it may discharge infectious spores to the bottom beneath to contaminate much more ants.

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How the parasite is ready to do that was not identified—though earlier badysis advised it takes management of the ant’s mind indirectly.

This, nevertheless, will not be the case.

Zombie ant biting behavior (Kim Fleming) A zombie ant biting down on the underside of a twig earlier than its loss of life. Kim Fleming

In a examine revealed within the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists, researchers led by Maridel Fredericksen, of Pennsylvania State University, have proven that the parasite hijacks the physique moderately than the mind, invading the muscle fibers to create a 3D community that permits it to manage the ant’s actions.

“To better understand how such microbial parasites control animal behavior, we looked at cell-level interactions between the parasite and its carpenter-ant host at a crucial moment in the parasite’s lifecycle—when the manipulated host fixes itself permanently to vegetation by its mandibles,” Fredericksen stated in a press release.

Scientists contaminated ants with both the zombie ant parasite or a normal fungal pathogen so as to take a look at the variations that happen after it has entered the physique. They then used microscope expertise to create 3D photos displaying the distribution, abundance and interactions of the parasite within the host our bodies.

Over 24 hours, they have been in a position to get an “unprecedented view” of how the parasite strikes by way of the physique and takes management. They discovered that the parasite invaded virtually each a part of the ant’s physique, together with the legs, stomach and head. However, it left the mind intact.

Ophiocordyceps_unilateralis Ant with spore rising from its head. David Hughes, Maj-Britt Pontoppidan, PLoS ONE

“We found that a high percentage of the cells in a host were fungal cells,” stated senior creator David Hughes, additionally of Penn State. “In essence, these manipulated animals have been a fungus in ants’ clothes.

“Normally in animals, habits is managed by the mind sending indicators to the muscle tissue, however our outcomes counsel that the parasite is controlling host habits peripherally. Almost like a puppeteer pulls the strings to make a marionette transfer, the fungus controls the ant’s muscle tissue to govern the host’s legs and mandibles.”

Why the parasite retains the mind intact is unclear, however the researchers counsel it could protect it so it may survive till its closing suicidal act of biting down on the vegetation. “We need to conduct additional research to determine the brain’s role and how much control the fungus exercises over it,” Hughes added.

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