July 29, 2022 —
If you think we are in charge of our actions, think again. Better yet, let a fungus, bacteria, or protozoa tell you what to think. Jedi mind tricks are nothing compared to what microbes can do to animals, people and others.
You’ve probably heard that mice and rats are infected with Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan parasite that causes toxoplasmosis lose their fear of cats because the pathogen initiates “epigenetic remodeling.” In other words, T. gondii changes rat DNA expression in its favor. As a result of this “remodeling”, infected rats and mice become sexually aroused by cat urine and start searching, to their detriment, of course. In this way, T. gondii infects more cats.
A recent finding is that when children have a T. gondii infection, they are at higher risk of mental health crises as adolescents. Research published in August 2014 in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease found a strong correlation between T. gondii infections and diagnoses of schizophrenia, depression, aggressive behavior and impaired cognition in young adults. However, the authors did not claim that this is a direct result of toxoplasmosis.
Now let’s talk about gut feelings. As you may know, most cells in our body are not human. About 57% belong to microbes, and the rest is ‘we’. Our gut bacteria undoubtedly have a strong influence on our emotions and behavior. Bad gut bugs can also make us sick, but not in the “cruise ship crud” sense. Recent studies point to a common source of some cases of obesity, Parkinson’s disease and clinical depression: faulty stools.
In the US, Canada and many other countries, “faecal material transplants” or FMTs are increasingly recognized as a treatment option for certain diseases. FMTs have been shown to be particularly good at reducing symptoms of depression; improvements in many cases are nothing short of amazing.
Simply put, feces from healthy donors with robust and diverse gut microbial communities are transferred to sick patients with depleted gut microbial populations. I read that fecal donors are screened more carefully than sperm donors. I can imagine that they also find it less fun to donate.
Let’s take a look at the fungus among us that turns insects into zombies. In 2018, biologists at Cornell University discovered that a native fungus, Batkoa Major, had killed a large number of spotted lanternflies (which aren’t really flies, but whatever). This was a happy massacre, as lantern flies are invasive and cause damage to vineyards, orchards and forests.
It seems when? batkoa Spores come into contact with a lanternfly, they enter the beetle through leg joints and other chinks in its armor. Once inside the bug’s exoskeleton, batkoa starts to multiply. Soon it overwhelms the insect, which stops eating, mating or anything else nice. Somehow the fungus directs the lanternfly to climb somewhere high, such as the tip of a tall plant.
As the eerie choreography unfolds, batkoa asks the lanternfly to open its wings to expose its belly. That’s the last move of the bug. The fungus then secretes threadlike hyphae from the corpse and “sews” it to its perch. A day or so after the death of the lanternfly, batkoa spores explode from its belly, engulfing everything below with powdered death.
Death by mold is as old as the dinosaurs. In 2021, Oregon State University scientists found a 50-million-year-old ant preserved in amber. The poor thing had a parasitic mushroom that had sprouted from his anus like an umbrella. Toxoplasmosis sounds like a picnic compared to a brain-teasing fungus that monitors your last moves, kills you and launches a spore-laden parasol out of your ass.
But these things are barely registered on the creep-o-meter. Entomophthora muscae, however, maximizes it. Used commercially to kill flies in confined environments, this fungal pathogen delights in turning an array of well-adapted flies into fiery necrophiles. The host list includes more than twenty species in eight families, including some that spread disease to humans. Though native and endemic, it wasn’t until 2022 that details about the anomalous ways were revealed.
In a joint Swedish-Danish study published on July 13, 2022 in the ISME Multidisciplinary Journal of Microbial Ecologyauthors Naundrup, Bohman et al Reveal how this fungus uses necrophilia to create untold bonus victims without lifting a finger. Or a hype. If you think “simple” life forms are not intelligent, this may give you a break.
As with our unfortunate lanternfly, forced by batkoa to aid in his own murder, flies hacked their free will as E. muscae takes over their bodies. Although it kills both genera of flies, females are given the usual consumption from within, a forced march to a prominent site of the pathogen’s choice, followed quickly by death.
Male flies, on the other hand, are forced to have sex until they die. Despite the fact that more than a few guys reading this are probably thinking, hey – that might not be such a bad ending, rest assured it’s no fun for man flies.
Once a female victim is good and dead, E. muscae starts making sesquiterpene analogs for the seductive sex pheromone of the female fly. Numerous males line up to copulate with her corpse, being fatally infected by spores. A curious fact from the study is that the longer a mold-killed female rots, the hornier the males become. E. muscae saves itself a lot of work, because a carcass infects dozens of flies.
The original article can be found here.
Paul Hetzler only does the things he really wants. Right after he finishes his “honey-do” chore list.