Now We Know How the Zombie Ant Gets Its Bite

WIRED | 7/17/2019 | Matt Simon
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How do we begin to comprehend the astonishing complexity of a fungus that invades an ant’s body, grows throughout its tissues, and orders the host to climb up a tree and bite onto a twig, killing it and exploding out the back of its head to rain down spores on more ants below? Should science just leave this zombie outbreak a mystery?

Nah, ain’t no fun in that. Over at Penn State, biologists have been teasing apart this incredible manipulation by the Ophiocordyceps fungus, and today they’ve put a new piece of the puzzle in place—how the fungus gets the ant to bite down on a twig. The answer is every bit as dastardly as you’d expect from a murderous fungus.

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When an Ophiocordyceps spore lands on the exoskeleton of an ant, it begins to eat its way through the hard material, eventually infiltrating the gooey, nutritious innards. Here it grows so-called hyphal tubes throughout the body, forming a network that penetrates the muscles of the poor ant. (How that must feel maybe is a mystery we’d never want to solve.) Yet even though the fungus manipulates the ant’s behavior in unfathomable ways, it never actually penetrates the brain. Instead, it grows around it and into the muscles that control the nearby mandibles, aka the bitey bits.

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The Penn researchers used a scanning electron microscope, which images tiny things by bombarding them with electrons, to look at these mandibular muscles in dying ants. “What we found was that the muscle appears to be in a state of forcible contraction,” says molecular biologist Colleen Mangold, lead author on a new paper describing the findings in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Curiously, the fungus destroyed the sarcolemma, a kind of sheath around the muscle fibers. But it...
(Excerpt) Read more at: WIRED
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