Humans are not the only ones prone to psychedelic chemicals found in magic mushrooms. “Zombie scars” – under the influence of a parasitic fungus – have re-emerged in West Virginia to infect their peers, and now scientists have a better understanding of how it happens.
Researchers from the University of West Virginia recently saw the return of these strange creatures, which are infected with a fungus called Massospora. According to a study published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, the fungus manipulates insects to unconsciously open up other scars, and transmits the disease quickly to create a zombie-type army.
When a male cicada is infected by Massospora, researchers have found that it cuts off its wings like a female, a well-known breeding call. This behavior attracts healthy male cycles, facilitating the spread of the fungus, which contains chemicals including psilocinin, found in hallucinogenic mushrooms.
Just how the disease manipulates its host and spreads is only the most recent discovery after decades of research on Massospora. The findings show the parasite’s functions, in part, as a sexually transmitted infection.
“Essentially, cicadas are urging others to become infected because their healthy counterparts are interested in agreeing,” co-author Brian Lovett, a postdoctoral researcher with Davis College of Agriculture, said. Natural Resources and Design, said in a week-long press release. “Bioactive compounds can manipulate insects to stay awake and continue to transmit the pathogen for longer.”
The infected research team returned to southeastern Virginia earlier this year. While periodic scars only appear every 13 or 17 years, time is distributed in different places, making it easier for researchers to study their behavior.
The researchers described the details of the fungus process as “a disturbing display of the proportions of the B-horror film.” The spores eat away at the genitals, butts and abdomens of the cycads until they eventually fall out, replacing them with fungal spores – a brutal process for insects, which have passed just over a decade underground.
Cyclades begin to rot, but instead of dying immediately, they fly around it and infect others. Because of the brain’s ability to control infection, insects seem to behave as if nothing is wrong.
Lovett described the process as wearing “away like rubber on a pencil.” Fungi are similar to rabies – they both “teach living insects to make their offerings,” the researchers said – in a process called active host transmission, which is a form of “biological puppets.”
“Since we are also insect-like animals, we like to think we have full control over our decisions and take our free will as a fact,” Lovett said. “But when these pathogens infect cicadas, it’s very clear that the pathogen is leveraging the behavior of the cicada to force it to do things that are not in the interest of the cicada but are very much in the interest of the cicada. pathogen. “
Lovett and his co-author, Matthew Kasson, an associate professor of plant pathology and mycology, first discovered the psychoactive compounds in Massospora-infected cicadas last year. But so far, it is not yet clear how an infection occurs.
Researchers are unsure when in their life cycle they encounter fungi. It is possible that cycad nymphs may encounter Massospora before leaving the ground after 17 years to begin in adults, or in their underground path, before feeding on the roots for 17 years. .
“The fungus can more or less wait within its host for the next 17 years until something wakes up, perhaps a hormone hormone, where it is possibly dormant and asymptomatic in the ziga host. its, “Kasson said.
But, there is no need to be worried about being infected by zombies. Unlikeor , these zombie scars are generally harmless to humans, the researchers said.
“They’re very docile,” Lovett said. “You can walk right up to one, pick it up to see if it has the fungus (white to yellow plug on the back) and put it down. They’re by no means big pests. They’re a really quirky insect. interesting that he has developed a strange lifestyle. ”
Due to their relatively slow reproduction rate, the fungus does not present a major threat to the zygote population. But scientists are still hoping to find out how the pathogen developed, and how it may be evolving to continue the terrorism of other insect species.