You are currently viewing There is a fungus that transforms ants into zombies, and today we are closer to understanding why

The fungus genus Ophiocordyceps is famous as the “zombie ants” fungus. It is a parasite that affects insects by manipulating them for its own benefit. We know that this genus contains numerous species, but by analyzing it, an international team of researchers has found a microscopic surprise: the parasites that affect this parasite.

Two new species.
Specifically, the new parasitic species were discovered in fungi Ophiocordyceps camponoti-floridani, one of the species of zombifying fungi that inhabits the American state of Florida. The team that announced the find has already named these possible new species: Niveomyces coronatus and Torrubiellomyces zombieae.

The first species would be visible on the outside of its host fungus, the Ophiocordyceps. The name is due to the fact that its appearance is whitish and with small fibers, as if a layer of ice or snow covered its guests. The second fungus would be smaller and would appear as small dots on its hosts.

Parasite parasites.
Researchers consider these fungi to be true parasites of one of the world’s most famous parasites. The fungi would weaken their hosts and could render their spores sterile.

“Every time we saw these new genera that we have described in fungi, the fungus seemed crushed, really consumed by these other fungi,” João Araújo, a member of the research team, explained in statements collected by CNN.

The zombie ant fungus.
Ophiocordyceps are species that have penetrated the popular imagination the most. And is not for less. The life cycle of this fungus begins with its spores, which are consumed by ants. Once inside the host, the fungus grows and spreads inside the animal.

The fungus reaches the brain and then takes control of the ant. Your goal will be to drive the ant to a suitable place for the fungus to settle. This process is what has earned these parasites the nickname of zombie fungus, and it is that despite ending the life of their host, they are capable of making it move.

The fungus structure ends up branching out of the ant’s body to spread its spores and restart its life cycle.

They might not be the only ones.
The finding has been published in the journal person, and is based on genetic studies performed on samples collected in Florida. However, the researchers caution that the local fungus, Ophiocordyceps camponoti-floridani, is just one species in a large genus, and that the various populations of Ophiocordyceps in different locations may have similar parasites.

Disease Control.
The suspicion that there was something keeping the ant fungus at bay is not new. In 2012, an article published in the PLOS ONE magazine gave an account of a mystery.

The researchers had observed that the pressure exerted by fungi on ant colonies was much less than might be expected considering the virulence of fungal infections and the size of the “ant graveyards” affected by these parasites.

The study, carried out in populations in Brazil and Thailand, spoke of the existence of hyperparasites (as parasites that attack parasites are called) that “castrated” these fungi. The new article indicates the existence of this type of organisms affecting Florida fungi, which also implies their probable existence in other regions of the world.

Much to learn.
Beyond fiction, there is much we can learn from ants and parasites, and some of these lessons transcend the realm of these creatures. As Carolyn Elya, a biologist at Harvard University (who was not involved in this study) explains, parasitic fungi have evolved into “expert neuroscientists.” “By studying how they manage to solve this problem, we can have a better understanding of our general goal of understanding how brains work or how they produce behaviors,” Elya concludes.

Understanding how nature attacks fire with fire could also teach us lessons in other realms, from pest control to disease control. An example of the latter is the increasingly realistic approach of using bacteriophage viruses to attack antibiotic-resistant infections.

For now there is still much to understand about the new species discovered and other similar ones that may exist. Who knows how many more organisms we’ll be able to discover hiding in plain sight.

Image | Ophiocordyceps Petch on a beetle. Patty Kaishian, Mushroom Observer


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Tarun Kumar

Tarun Kumar has worked in the News sector for 05 years and is currently the Owner and Editor of Then24. He reside in Delhi, India with his Family.

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