Zombie ants are intriguing to scientists. The zombie part happens when a fungus takes control of an ant’s brain, in order to reproduce, eventually forcing the ant to attach itself to a leaf or twig before killing it.
After the ant’s death, the fungus grows and later sprouts a stem. Spores will be released to infect other ants, turning them into zombie ants.
But while the surface process is well-known, the underlying mechanisms remain a mystery, prompting Charissa de Bekker, a postdoctoral fellow at the Hughes Lab at Pennsylvania State University, to ask the public to help fund planned research into the zombie ant phenomenon.
“Researchers become more and more aware of the fact that some parasites manipulate host behavior for their own benefits,” she wrote on Microryza, the crowdfunding website. “Though the general interest in host brain manipulation grows, not much is known about the mechanisms underlying this phenomenon. We don’t exactly know what genes and compounds are involved both from the parasite and the host point of view. The reason for this is that the complex parasite-host interactions that are at play here are very difficult to tease apart.”
“This research project aims to unravel how this parasite establishes zombie-like host behavior by discovering the genes that are important,” she added.
De Bekker has already performed experiments in which infected ants were sampled at the moment of “zombie” biting behavior, and after death.
“To be able to discover which fungal genes are establishing this I will make frozen sections of infected ant heads,” she said. “From these sections I will collect the fungal cells that have been manipulating the brain using a laser capture microscope. I already have extensive experience using this equipment (you can find my PhD thesis here), which guarantees my capability to carry out these experiments.”
From the cells gathered, RNA will be extracted and amplified. The expression of the genes in play will be looked at, and the samples will be used for RNA sequencing, done by experts of the sequencing facility at Penn State University.
“This will result in a wealth of data which will not only help me answer the main research question for this project, but will also provide me with extensive information that will become helpful in and could form the basis for future projects,” de Bekker said.
“Finally, I will analyze the datasets and will seek advice on a regular basis from experts within the bioinformatics center at Penn State for this. In preparation, I am already taking an Applied Bioinformatics course taught by the director of this center.”