HOW THE ZOMBIE FUNGUS TAKES OVER ANTS’ BODIES TO CONTROL THEIR MINDS

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To seek out the world’s most sinister examples of thoughts management, don’t look to science fiction. As a substitute, go to a tropical nation like Brazil, and enterprise deep into the jungle. Discover a leaf that’s hanging virtually precisely 25 centimetres above the forest ground, no extra and no much less. Now, look beneath it. Should you’re in luck, you may discover an ant clinging to the leaf’s central vein, jaws clamped tight for expensive life. However this ant’s life is already over. And its physique belongs to Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the zombie-ant fungus.

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The fungus’s ability at colonizing ants is surpassed solely by its ability at colonizing widespread tradition. It’s the organism behind the monsters of the online game “The Final of Us” and the zombies of the guide The Woman with All of the Presents. It’s additionally an obsession of 1 David Hughes, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State College, who has been finding out it for years. He desires to know precisely how this puppet grasp controls its puppets and his newest experiments counsel that it’s much more ghoulish than it first seems.

HOW THE ZOMBIE FUNGUS TAKES OVER ANTS’ BODIES TO CONTROL THEIR MINDS
HOW THE ZOMBIE FUNGUS TAKES OVER ANTS’ BODIES TO CONTROL THEIR MINDS

Hughes’s pupil Maridel Fredericksen used a particular microscope to julienne contaminated ants into slices that have been simply 50 nanometers thick a thousandth of the width of a human hair. She scanned every slice, compiled the pictures right into a three-dimensional mannequin, and painstakingly annotated which bits have been an ant and which bits have been fungus. It took three months to mark up only one muscle. To hurry issues up, Hughes teamed up with pc scientist Danny Chen, who educated synthetic intelligence to differentiate ant from the fungus.

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When the fungus first enters its host, it exists as single cells that float across the ant’s bloodstream, budding off new copies of themselves. However in some unspecified time in the future, as Fredericksen’s photos present, these single cells begin working collectively. They join to one another by constructing quick tubes, of a form that has solely ever been seen earlier than in fungi that infect vegetation. Connected on this manner, they will talk and change vitamins.

They will additionally begin invading the ant’s muscle tissue, both by penetrating the muscle cells themselves or rising into the areas between them a crimson muscle fibre, encircled and drained by a community of interconnected yellow fungal cells. That is one thing distinctive to Ophiocordyceps. Hughes’s group discovered that one other parasitic fungus, which fatally infects ants however doesn’t manipulate their minds, additionally spreads into muscle tissue however doesn’t kind tubes between particular person cells, and doesn’t wire itself into giant networks.

HOW THE ZOMBIE FUNGUS TAKES OVER ANTS’ BODIES TO CONTROL THEIR MINDS
HOW THE ZOMBIE FUNGUS TAKES OVER ANTS’ BODIES TO CONTROL THEIR MINDS

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So what we now have here’s a hostile takeover of a uniquely malevolent form. Enemy forces invading a number’s physique and utilizing that physique like a walkie-talkie to speak with one another and affect the mind from afar. Hughes thinks the fungus may also exert extra direct management over the ant’s muscle tissue, actually controlling them “as a puppeteer controls as a marionette doll.” As soon as an an infection is underway, he says, the neurons within the ant’s physique

Those that give their mind management over their muscle tissue begin to die. Hughes suspects that the fungus takes over. It successfully cuts the ant’s limbs off from its mind and inserts itself in place, releasing chemical compounds that pressure the muscle tissue there to contract. If that is proper, then the ant ends its life as a prisoner in its personal physique. Its mind remains to be within the driver’s seat, however the fungus has the wheel.

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Each time Hughes or anybody else talk about the zombie-ant fungus, they at all times discuss it as a single entity, which corrupts and subverts a number. However you might additionally consider the fungus as a colony, very like the ants it targets. Particular person microscopic cells start life alone however ultimately come to cooperate, fusing right into a superorganism. Collectively, these brainless cells can commandeer the mind of a a lot bigger creature.

HOW THE ZOMBIE FUNGUS TAKES OVER ANTS’ BODIES TO CONTROL THEIR MINDS
HOW THE ZOMBIE FUNGUS TAKES OVER ANTS’ BODIES TO CONTROL THEIR MINDS

However surprisingly, they will do this with out ever bodily touching the mind itself. Hughes’s group discovered that fungal cells infiltrate the ant’s whole physique, together with its head, however they go away its mind untouched. There are different parasites that manipulate their hosts with out destroying their brains, says Kelly Weiner smith from Rice College. For instance, one flatworm types a carpet-like layer over the mind of the California killifish, leaving the mind intact whereas forcing the fish to behave erratically and draw the eye of birds the flatworm’s subsequent host.

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