‘Puppeteer’ fungus eats flies from the inside before spewing spores from their abdomen

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Scientists have identified a fungus that infects fruit flies and eats them from the inside out – but, not before causing them to ascend to a high point and spread their wings like a marionette on a string, to spew spores from their abdomen


It’s no wonder it’s called ‘destroyer of insects.’

Scientists have identified a fungus that infects fruit flies and kills them from the inside out – but, not before causing them to ascend to a high point and spread their wings like a marionette on a string, to spew spores from their abdomen.

The behaviour-manipulating fungus invades the fruit fly’s nervous system and forces it to embark on the fatal climb, known as summit disease, before devouring the brain and muscles.

Scientists have identified a fungus that infects fruit flies and eats them from the inside out – but, not before causing them to ascend to a high point and spread their wings like a marionette on a string, to spew spores from their abdomen

Scientists have identified a fungus that infects fruit flies and eats them from the inside out – but, not before causing them to ascend to a high point and spread their wings like a marionette on a string, to spew spores from their abdomen

According to researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, the fungus responsible for the horrifying infection is called Entomophthora muscae – with the genus translating to ‘destroyer of insects.’

Then-doctoral student Carolyn Elya began examining the fungus’ effect after noticing dead fruit flies around a rotting watermelon on her apartment’s balcony.

After she stopped feeding them the antifungal food used in the labs, fruit flies she brought to her home to observe became infected as well.

Additional studies back at the university’s lab revealed further insight on how it works.

‘I thought this was a big, bad, evil thing crazed with infecting lots of flies, but the fungus is actually pretty wimpy,’ Elya said.

‘I think of this as like the invasion of the body snatchers.’

Many fungi are known to infect insects and use their bodies to spread spores.

By forcing them to climb to a high point, the researchers say the fungus can spread its spores more widely.

‘There are several well-known examples of microorganisms – bacteria, fungi, and protozoa – that manipulate animal behaviour in the natural world, but we don’t yet understand how these organisms hijack an animal’s nervous system,’ Elya said.

The behaviour-manipulating fungus invades the fruit fly’s nervous system and forces it to embark on the fatal climb, known as summit disease, before devouring the brain and muscles

The behaviour-manipulating fungus invades the fruit fly’s nervous system and forces it to embark on the fatal climb, known as summit disease, before devouring the brain and muscles

The behaviour-manipulating fungus invades the fruit fly’s nervous system and forces it to embark on the fatal climb, known as summit disease, before devouring the brain and muscles

This particular fungus can be in the body long before its effects become apparent, feeding off the fly’s fat. It’s only once it’s devoured all the fat that it moves on to complete its mission.

During these earlier stages, the researcher says the flies seem ‘clueless’ as to what’s happening to them.

But, it then progresses and destroys the insect’s organs. All the while, the fly keeps ascending to higher surfaces.

HOW DOES FUNGUS TURN ANTS INTO ‘ZOMBIES’? 

Researchers at Penn State University suggest that the zombie ant fungus surrounds and invades muscle fibres throughout the ant’s body, allowing it to control the host’s behaviour.

In a recent study, the researchers infected ants with the parasite or a general fungal pathogen.

The team then created 3D visualisations to understand how the fungi moved inside the ants.

Using AI and machine-learning algorithms, the researcher analysed the images, and found that the parasite cells had spread through virtually all regions of the ants, including the head, thorax, abdomen and legs.

Many of the fungal cells were connected, suggesting they formed a network to control the ant’s behaviour collectively.

Dr David Hughes, senior author of the study, said: ‘We found that a high percentage of the cells in a host were fungal cells.

‘In essence, these manipulated animals were a fungus in ants’ clothing.’

Despite being found in most regions in the ant, the researchers found no fungal cells inside the brain.

The fungus then grows out of the fly’s proboscis, eventually causing it to stick face-first to a high point.

Once it’s stuck, the infected fly raises its wings to a 90-degree angle, and dies frozen in this position.

And, the fungus saves the brain for last.

‘As far as I can tell, it holds off on eating the brain until after it kills the fly,’ Elya said. ‘That’s also when it eats the muscles.’

 

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