Mushrooms are “zombie ants” contaminated with their very own parasites

Mushrooms are “zombie ants” contaminated with their very own parasites

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A parasitic fungus is popping ants into “zombies” around the globe.

The fungus is like one thing out of a horror film: the organism takes over the physique and mind of its host ant, forcing it to desert its nest and scramble up a close-by tree.

There, the contaminated ant clamps its jaws on a leaf hanging above the forest flooring and dies just a few days later because the fungus digests it. Burrowing by way of the physique of its host, the fungus sends down a bathe of spores to contaminate the subsequent era of the ant sufferer.

Scientifically assigned to the genus Ophiocordyceps, greater than two dozen species of mushroom ant zombies inhabit the globe, together with Florida, Brazil, and Japan; scientists suspect that every of the handfuls of affected ant species has its personal specialised pressure of Ophiocordyceps.

To date, scientists have elucidated the molecular mechanism of the parasitic interplay between fungi and ants, which varieties the idea of behavioral manipulation, based on 2020 examine. How precisely these parasites act systematically, nonetheless, just isn’t effectively understood.

Now scientists have found {that a} fungus that assaults ants is contaminated with its personal fungal parasites, which can assist curb the zombification of ants, based on a brand new examine.

Dr. João Araujo, assistant curator of mycology on the New York Botanical Backyard, has spent greater than a decade touring the rainforest seeking zombie ants. Through the years, he stored noticing one thing unusual: a fuzzy white mushroom rising on high of a zombie ant mushroom.

Different scientists have observed the mysterious fungus for many years, however Araujo and his colleagues determined to grow to be the primary scientists to systematically examine the query, specializing in a pressure of zombie ants from Florida. The researchers described the bodily construction of the fungi rising on high of the zombie ants and sequenced their DNA in a examine printed Nov. 9 within the journal Persoonia.

In doing so, the workforce found two new species of fungi beforehand unknown to science.

Dr. A.S.  Juan Araujo from the New York Botanical Garden and his team discovered two new species of mushrooms.

“We realized that there have been two completely different fungal lineages, new fungal lineages, that have been infecting one species of zombie ant fungus in Florida,” stated Araujo, lead writer of the examine.

Every of the 2 newly found mushrooms belongs to its personal genus. One of many new fungi, Niveomyces coronatus, is chargeable for the fuzzy white coating on the zombie ant mushroom — the element of its title (“niveo”) comes from the Latin for “snowy.” The second new fungus, Torrubiellomyces zombiae, is more durable to identify: The little black blobs “seem like fleas,” based on Araujo.

The fungi that assault the zombie ants don’t in flip zombify their host, however they feed on its tissues and seem to trigger it hurt. “Each time we see these new genera that we have described rising on a mushroom, the mushroom appears to be like fairly battered, actually swallowed up by this different mushroom,” Araujo stated.

“In some circumstances, it first castrates the Ophiocordyceps (the zombie-creating fungus) so it may not shoot spores, after which it grows and eats the whole fungus.” As a result of Niveomyces and Torrubiellomyces are so new to science, it is not but clear how a lot they have an effect on zombie ant populations usually.

One of the new fungi, Niveomyces coronatus, causes a white plaque on the zombie ant fungus.

These new genera are the primary parasites formally described as infecting zombie ants, however researchers suspect there could also be others on the market. “I believe it is extra widespread than we predict. Parasitism is a really worthwhile lifestyle,” stated senior examine writer Dr. Charissa de Becker, affiliate professor at Utrecht College within the Netherlands. “It could be essentially the most dominant lifestyle on the planet.”

Furthermore, based on her, parasites usually and parasitic fungi specifically are poorly studied. “The truth that we needed to give rise to 2 new genera tells you ways little we find out about this a part of the fungal tree of life,” de Becker stated.

By deepening our understanding of the zombie ant fungus, the brand new analysis might have functions past the examine of fungi, stated Dr. Carolyn Elia, a doctoral pupil in organismal and evolutionary biology at Harvard College. She didn’t take part within the examine.

“Ophiocordyceps grew to become an knowledgeable neurologist nearly throughout evolution. He is aware of precisely which buttons to push and tips on how to get the ant to do what he desires,” she stated. “By finding out how we work out tips on how to clear up this drawback, we will perceive our bigger aim of making an attempt to know how the mind works or creates habits.”

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