The zombie fungus changes the behaviour of its victims before exploding out of their faces.
That’s right. Zombie fungus.
For any avid Attenborough fans out there you’ll no doubt recall the particularly harrowing episode in which we saw delirious insects being abandoned by their relatives like that unwanted robot kid in A.I. After spotting some shifty behaviour fellow members of the colony will carry the affected ants to a remote location before scarpering, and good job too because shortly after BOOM. Fungus party.
Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is an entomopathogen, which means it survives within a host much like a parasite. It targets ants of the Camponotini tribe and is commonly referred to as ‘zombie fungus’ due to the way it changes the behaviour of its host.
After becoming infected, hosts of the fungus will begin acting strangely, a symptom fellow ants have evolved to be wary of. An infected host will often leave the nest and move to an area which is humid and warm (the perfect conditions for fungal growth) such as the forest floor. The ant will then attach itself to the underside of a leaf or branch and remains there until eventually succumbing to the fungus. This is when the magic happens. A fruiting body of the fungus will grow right out of the ants head and explode, releasing a burst of spores and spreading the reach of the fungus.
The entire process from infection to death takes from 4 to 10 days and if the fungus succeeds it can devastate entire colonies. But the fungus ain’t all bad, it produces secondary metabolites, that is, products borne from metabolism which are not vital to the survival of the organism. This can be an antibiotic or a pigment, and in the case of the zombie fungus this is a uncharacterised product which protects the host from succumbing to any other illnesses. A successful parasite doesn’t kill its host straight away as it needs it to survive. These uncharacterised natural products produced by the fungus are thought to be the key to unlocking new anti-infective, and anticancer agents in human medicine. Pretty cool, hey?
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