Top Story: March 8, 2011

Zombie Ant Fungus

journal.pone.0017024

Four new species of fungi have been discovered in the Brazilian rainforest. Not run-of-the-mill fungal varieties, either, especially from the perspective of an ant. These new species belong to a group of “zombifying” fungi that infect ants and then manipulate their behavior, eventually killing the ants after securing a prime location for spore dispersal.

The fungi control the ants with mind-altering chemicals, according to Wired Science:

Once infected by spores, the worker ants, normally dedicated to serving the colony, leave the nest, find a small shrub and start climbing. The fungi directs all ants to the same kind of leaf: about 25 centimeters above the ground and at a precise angle to the sun (though the favored angle varies between fungi).

Once the ant arrives at the right leaf, it dies and the fungus takes over. It can produce spores from a single dead ant for up to a year! Wired has some pretty gnarly pictures, if you feel the urge.

The researchers studied these fungi in the wild, not the lab (which has been the trend), and reported their findings last week in the open access, online journal, PLoS One.

In their paper, the authors draw attention to undiscovered, complex, biological interactions in threatened habitats. The four new species all come from the Atlantic Rainforest of Brazil, the most heavily degraded biodiversity hotspot on the planet with ninety-two percent of its original coverage gone. The fungi keep the ant population in check—a tip in the balance could wreak havoc on the ecosystem.

And fungi from this group contribute to both traditional and modern medicine. Again, from Wired:

Organ transplant patients, for example, receive ciclosporin—a drug that suppresses the immune system, reducing the chance the body will reject the new tissue. Chemicals from this same fungal group are also used for antibiotic, anti-malarial and anticancer drugs.

The researchers hope to understand more about this group of fungi before it’s too late. Ants may feel differently…

Image courtesy of PLoS One

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