Zombies caused by fungal infections

Zombie Ants!

Well, make sure that you add National Geographic to the list of sites you search for Microbes in the News bonus point opportunities. Today’s summary comes to us from the Amazon Rainforest, and the work described at Nat Geo was published this month in the journal PLoS ONE. Entomologists from right up the road at Penn State University had noticed that ants demonstrated a large variety of fungal growths on them (picture at right.) Once the ant has been infected, the fungus apparently triggers behavioral changes in the ant which cause it to spread the fungus over a wider range. The ant then dies, which allows the fungus to spread its spores to new locations.

The fungal species isolated from infected ants were a newly described group called Ophiocordyceps. Many related species are common endoparasites that infect many insects; Cordyceps unilateralis infects ants and causes them to climb a plant and die there. Another related species, Cordyceps sinensis or the Caterpillar fungus, has been used as a traditional medicine in Chinese culture. An active component from this fungus called cordycepin appears to have multiple biological effects in humans, including potential anticancer properties, antidepressant effects, and hypoglycemic effects. The end of the Wikipedia entry notes that shroom hunters in Nepal can earn $900 an ounce for Cordyceps, so here’s a money making opportunity for work study students.

BONUS: We had an earlier bonus opportunity with fungal infections at the start of the term, but let’s stick in another since no one will comment without a carrot in front of them.  Are there other instances of microorganisms causing behavioral changes in the host that they infect?

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About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on March 3, 2011, in Bonus!, Braaaains!, Microbes in the News, Strange but True. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. yes there are many other instances of micro organisms causing behavioral changes in the host they infect. For example viruses is one because they are very tiny and also because of their Adaptation to the environment, Cellular makeup,Metabolic processes that obtain and use energy, Movement that response to the environment, Growth and development and Reproduction.
    Viruses work by taking over the host in order to survive so that will cause behavioral changes and they are also very good for infecting any kind of host and any kind of living cells form plants to fungus, basteria to animal.

    • One example of a virus that modifies host behavior (pretty drastically) is rabies virus; I think everyone is familiar with the changes that one would expect in a rabid animal. The behavioral changes that occur with rabies infection is due to the extreme neuronal damage that occurs as the infection progresses.

  2. I think tetanus is also another disease that causes behavioral changes due to Clostridium tetani microorganism. It has an endospore which is released with the cell dies. This disease causes neuromuscular damage which can become life threatening.

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