‘Zombie ant’ fungi are infected with their own parasites

'Zombie ant' fungi are infected with their own parasites
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Around the world, a parasitic fungus is turning ants into “zombies”.

The fungus looks like something out of a horror movie: The organism takes over the body and brain of the ant host, mind-controlling it to leave its nest and climb a nearby tree.

There, the infected ant clamps its jaws around a leaf dangling from the forest floor and dies within days as the fungus digests it. Passing through the host’s body, the fungus then sends a shower of spores to infect the next generation of the ant predator.

More than 20 species of zombie ant fungus, scientifically classified as Ophiocordyceps, live on Earth, including in Florida, Brazil, and Japan; Scientists suspect that each of the dozens of ant species affected has a unique strain of Ophiocordyceps.

So far, scientists have discovered the molecular mechanism of the parasitic interaction between the fungus and the ant, which is the basis of behavioral manipulation. Education until 2020. How these parasites function systemically is still poorly understood.

Now, scientists have discovered that the fungus that attacks ants is infected with its own fungal parasites, which may help keep ants in check against zombification, according to a new study.

Dr. João Araújo, assistant curator of mycology at the New York Botanical Garden, has been trekking through rainforests in search of zombie ants for more than a decade. Over the years, I’ve noticed something strange: a fuzzy white fungus growing on top of the zombie ant fungus.

Other scientists have noted the mysterious fungi for decades, but Araújo and his colleagues decided to zero in on a strain of zombie ants from Florida and become the first scientists to systematically investigate the issue. The researchers described the physical structure of the fungi growing on the zombie ant fungus and sequenced their DNA. A study published Nov. 9 in the journal Persoonia.

In doing so, the team discovered two new genera of fungi previously unknown to science.

Dr.  João Araújo of the New York Botanical Garden and his team have discovered two new genera of mushrooms.

“We realized that there were two different genera of fungi, new genera of fungi, that were infected by a type of zombie ant fungus in Florida,” said Araujo, lead author of the study.

Each of the two newly discovered fungi belongs to its own genus. One of the new fungi, Niveomyces coronatus, is responsible for the fuzzy white coating on the zombie ant fungus – the component of its name (‘niveo’) is Latin for ‘snowy’. The second new fungus, Torrubiellomyces zombiae, is more difficult to detect: the small black spots “look like fleas,” according to Araújo.

The fungi that attack zombie ant fungi do not in turn zombify the host, but feed on its tissues and damage it. “Every time we see these new genera that we describe growing on a mushroom, the mushroom looks pretty battered and has actually been consumed by this other mushroom,” Araújo said.

“In some cases, it first swallows the Ophiocordyceps (zombie fungus), so it can’t shoot the spores, then it grows and then it eats the whole fungus.” Because Niveomyces and Torrubiellomyces are so new to science, it’s not yet clear how much of an impact they have on zombie ant fungus populations in general.

One of the new fungi, Niveomyces coronatus, causes a white coating on zombie ant mushrooms.

These new strains are officially the first parasites to infect zombie ant fungi, but researchers suspect there may be others out there. “I think it’s more common than we think. Parasitism is a highly profitable lifestyle,” said lead study author Dr. Charissa de Bekker, associate professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “It may be the most dominant lifestyle on the planet.”

Moreover, he said, parasites in general and parasitic fungi in particular are poorly studied. “The fact that we have to address two new generations shows you how little we know about this part of the tree of life,” de Bekker said.

Dr. Carolyn Elya is a postdoctoral fellow in organismal and evolutionary biology at Harvard University. He was not engaged in research.

“Ophiocordyceps basically evolved into an expert neuroscientist. It knows exactly which buttons to push and how to do what the ant wants.”

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