Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Zombie Masters

Zombies make for a great horror movie and a good quick Halloween costume. But what makes zombies really quite funny and stomach-able is that they are not real. Or are they? (cue dark dramatic music...)

Apparently, there are more than just a few examples of parasites that become what I will call "zombie masters" and can control the actions of their host. WHAT? Yes, you heard me. There is a parasitic wasp that  can steer its host spider to create a special kind of web for it. Once the spider has completed the zombie master`s new home, the wasp will kill the spider and use his new shelter.

Another zombie master, a virus, can control its caterpillar host to climb to the tops of trees where the virus can then be dispersed more effectively.  This is a particularly interesting case because it is based on gypsy moth caterpillars, which can devastatingly defoliate broad leaved trees in the northeast US, where I grew up. Ok, yes, this study is being conducted at Penn State headed by Kelli Hoover, so as an alumni, I am delighted and highly biased.

Also, in the Penn State Entomology Department (that`s in the College of Agricultural Sciences, where I graduated from!!), Dr. David Hughes is studying which genes a parasite must possess to become a zombie master. He is studying ants in the tropics which are manipulated by a fungal parasitic master to descend to the forest floor where they lock onto a leaf by biting it, die, and the fungus grows from its tiny body. Fascinating stuff! I think a Zombie Master movie would be much more interesting than a pure zombie movie...but I wouldn`t watch it. Horror movies scare me and so does this science.

Read the full New York Times article on this for more information. Or if you would rather read the science directly, the current edition of the Journal of Experimental Biology is dedicated to parasitic manipulation of host behaveior. This includes Dr. Hughes` article.

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