Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Parasite causes zombie ants to die in an ideal spot

14.08.2009
A study in the September issue of The American Naturalist describes new details about a fungal parasite that coerces ants into dying in just the right spot¡ªone that is ideal for the fungus to grow and reproduce. The study, led David P. Hughes of Harvard University, shows just how precisely the fungus manipulates the behavior of its hapless hosts.

When a carpenter ant is infected by a fungus known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the victim remains alive for a short time. The fungus, however, is firmly in the driver's seat.

It compels the ant to climb from its nest high in the forest canopy down into small plants and saplings in the understory vegetation. The ant then climbs out onto the underside of a low-hanging leaf where it clamps down with its mandibles just before it dies. There it remains, stuck fast for weeks.

After the ant dies, the fungus continues to grow inside the body. After a few days, a stroma¡ªthe fungus's fruiting body¡ªsprouts from the back of the ant's head. After a week or two, the stroma starts raining down spores to the forest floor below. Each spore has the potential to infect another unfortunate passerby.

Scientists have known for over one hundred years about this parasite's ghastly ability to turn unsuspecting ants into zombies. But Hughes and his colleagues chronicle the amazingly precise control the fungus has over its victim.

At a field site in a Thai forest, Hughes's team found that the infected carpenter ants are almost invariably found clamped onto the undersides of leaves that are 25 centimeters (about 10 inches) from the ground below. What's more, most of the dead ants were found on leaves sprouting from the northwest side of the plant. Interestingly, the researchers found that temperature, humidity and sunlight in these spots are apparently optimal for the fungus to grow and reproduce. When the researchers placed leaves with infected ants at higher locations, or on the forest floor, the parasite failed to develop properly.

"The fungus accurately manipulates the infected ants into dying where the parasite prefers to be, by making the ants travel a long way during the last hours of their lives," Hughes said.

But getting the ant to die in the right spot is only half the battle, as the researchers found when they dissected a few victims.

"The fungus has evolved a suite of novel strategies to retain possession of its precious resource," said Hughes.

As the fungus spreads within a dead ant's body, it converts the ant's innards into sugars which are used to help the fungus grow. But it leaves the muscles controlling the mandibles intact to make sure the ant keeps its death grip on the leaf. The fungus also preserves the ant's outer shell, growing into cracks and crevices to reinforce weak spots. In doing this, the fungus fashions a protective coating that keeps microbes and other fungi out. At that point, it can safely get down to the business of claiming new victims.

Carpenter ants apparently have few defenses against the fungus. The most important way they avoid infection seems to be staying as far away from victims as possible. That may be part of the reason why these ants make their nests in the forest canopy, high above fungal breeding zones. Carpenter ants also seem to avoid blazing their foraging trails under infected areas. This too might be an adaptive strategy to avoid infection, but more study is needed to confirm it, Hughes says.

The mechanisms and cues the fungus uses to control an ant's behavior remain unknown. "That is another research area we are actively pursuing right now," Hughes says. Whatever the mechanisms, this much is clear: O. unilateralis has evolved highly specialized abilities to get unsuspecting ants to do its bidding.

Sandra B. Andersen, Sylvia Gerritsma, Kalsum M. Yusah, David Mayntz, Nigel L. Hywel©Jones, Johan Billen, Jacobus J. Boomsma, and David P. Hughes, "The Life of a Dead Ant: The Expression of an Adaptive Extended Phenotype." The American Naturalist, September 2009.

Kevin Stacey | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.uchicago.edu

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Meadows beat out shrubs when it comes to storing carbon
23.11.2017 | Norwegian University of Science and Technology

nachricht Migrating Cells: Folds in the cell membrane supply material for necessary blebs
23.11.2017 | Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Frictional Heat Powers Hydrothermal Activity on Enceladus

Computer simulation shows how the icy moon heats water in a porous rock core

Heat from the friction of rocks caused by tidal forces could be the “engine” for the hydrothermal activity on Saturn's moon Enceladus. This presupposes that...

Im Focus: Nanoparticles help with malaria diagnosis – new rapid test in development

The WHO reports an estimated 429,000 malaria deaths each year. The disease mostly affects tropical and subtropical regions and in particular the African continent. The Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC teamed up with the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME and the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the University of Tübingen for a new test method to detect malaria parasites in blood. The idea of the research project “NanoFRET” is to develop a highly sensitive and reliable rapid diagnostic test so that patient treatment can begin as early as possible.

Malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by mosquito bite. The most dangerous form of malaria is malaria tropica. Left untreated, it is fatal in most cases....

Im Focus: A “cosmic snake” reveals the structure of remote galaxies

The formation of stars in distant galaxies is still largely unexplored. For the first time, astron-omers at the University of Geneva have now been able to closely observe a star system six billion light-years away. In doing so, they are confirming earlier simulations made by the University of Zurich. One special effect is made possible by the multiple reflections of images that run through the cosmos like a snake.

Today, astronomers have a pretty accurate idea of how stars were formed in the recent cosmic past. But do these laws also apply to older galaxies? For around a...

Im Focus: Visual intelligence is not the same as IQ

Just because someone is smart and well-motivated doesn't mean he or she can learn the visual skills needed to excel at tasks like matching fingerprints, interpreting medical X-rays, keeping track of aircraft on radar displays or forensic face matching.

That is the implication of a new study which shows for the first time that there is a broad range of differences in people's visual ability and that these...

Im Focus: Novel Nano-CT device creates high-resolution 3D-X-rays of tiny velvet worm legs

Computer Tomography (CT) is a standard procedure in hospitals, but so far, the technology has not been suitable for imaging extremely small objects. In PNAS, a team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) describes a Nano-CT device that creates three-dimensional x-ray images at resolutions up to 100 nanometers. The first test application: Together with colleagues from the University of Kassel and Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht the researchers analyzed the locomotory system of a velvet worm.

During a CT analysis, the object under investigation is x-rayed and a detector measures the respective amount of radiation absorbed from various angles....

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Ecology Across Borders: International conference brings together 1,500 ecologists

15.11.2017 | Event News

Road into laboratory: Users discuss biaxial fatigue-testing for car and truck wheel

15.11.2017 | Event News

#Berlin5GWeek: The right network for Industry 4.0

30.10.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Underwater acoustic localization of marine mammals and vehicles

23.11.2017 | Information Technology

Enhancing the quantum sensing capabilities of diamond

23.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Meadows beat out shrubs when it comes to storing carbon

23.11.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>