Magdalena Kawalec-Segond: Zombies, necrophilia…that is, insects on the attack

It was possible to explain on a molecular level how an inconspicuous fungus that attacks flies could make a male prefer to have sex with a female zombie than with a live one. Which of course helps the fungus to spread. Thus, another idea for an SF horror film was born in the twists and turns of evolution, not in the writer’s head. Which doesn’t mean people aren’t going to use it in organic insecticides….

Venom fuels evolution

Why did some groups of organisms “radiate” a multitude of different species of themselves and others not? Why are fish or insects so crazy…

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Nature has a lot of power in it, that too just fills us with horror and disgust. What the “bamboo” lovers seem to forget is nature making big, sweet blue eyes, like from cartoons for children. Ecology is a big opponent of “bamboo”, and its purpose as a science is, among other things, to describe the relationships between organisms as they are, and not as they would allow us to “love animals and plants” more. I don’t want to say that nature is a naked struggle for existence, blood, teeth and claws, because it is also a distorted image.

Nevertheless, it is worth looking scientifically at the mechanisms polished over hundreds of millions of years of evolution to keep different populations in balance. Sometimes these are obvious mechanisms, although well preserved on celluloid and shown in wildlife films, when a lioness hunts an antelope. Sometimes clearly less. Because the organisms that regulate each other are often much smaller and apparently less spectacular, and besides, it is difficult to believe that in “simple” creatures such a complicated plot, where zombies, necrophilia, etc., can appear.

Also see: Intelligent octopus and its mysterious brain

Today’s story is about inconspicuous organisms such as fungi called insects, studied in serious laboratories – that is certainly a team of biologists at the University of Copenhagen under the supervision of Henrik H. DeFine Light. It becomes a story of a brain mousse completely engulfed by the odorless “smell” of specific insecticidal fungi and diverted into an action that only harms flies. And yet the male fly can’t resist and goes … copulate with the female turned into a zombie by the mushroom, instead of a healthy fly. Of course it gets infected and becomes a fungus propagator Entomophthora muscae. Until he becomes overgrown by it himself.

One gene – twice as much rice

Sometimes so much has to be changed that nothing changes, as Leopardi instructed in his “The Leopard”. But sometimes you manage to do something…

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Sexually transmitted diseases on hot days are therefore not only the domain of young people who lose their heads and not necessarily sober on holiday, but also of insects.

The release of sesquiterpenes is key to this process, according to a Danish study recently published in The ISME Journal, a scientific journal focused on microbial ecology. That is, chemical messages that are synthesized in the near-corpse of an infected woman and then broadcast as a seductive, albeit deadly, signal. The sense of participating in a horror movie is greater the more we realize that the longer a woman is dead, the more attractive she seems to men. For example, the insecticidal fungus produces pheromones that no male can resist, and no living normal female is allowed to produce them. The chemical attractant is overwhelming, but has only now been identified.

As has long been known, the fungus itself infects flies with spores, and after about a week, when the filamentous mycelium grows inside the fly, it takes full control of the fly’s brain. The simple act of simply allowing the new fungal spores to spread better and as widely as possible in the environment is to literally force the fly to the highest cat failure. That is, the last movement of wings and legs before death leads the infected insect as high as possible. However, this in itself seems insufficient. For the fungus would divert all its spread to the uncertain fate of the spores blown by the wind, no one knows where. Evolution then polished another mechanism, like a diamond, more so to speak – directed.

You have to kill the male sexually and then count on his innate, natural and healthy and flawless promiscuity in the fly population. Thus, an infected male generally mates successively with at least a few females, which will undoubtedly infect, before falling on the highest possible leaf himself, so that after a week the wind disperses the spores formed in his body as far as possible. So that one of them would fall on the small body of another healthy fly and germinate there.

Who do mosquitoes like?

“Summer with mosquitoes” is the evergreen of Polish camping music. It’s less fun to actually get bitten – some develop strong reactions…

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The Copenhagen research team used a variety of chemical analysis and nucleic acid sequencing techniques to determine exactly what the fungus is doing in the fly’s body at a given time of infection — what substances it produces and how they affect the fly itself and its potential sexual influence. . partner. If this scenario hadn’t been written by evolution, you might even think that the mushroom had invented such a multi-stage manipulation of our brains. None of these things, but in a horror movie where such a fungus infects humans, we could safely see such anti-evolutionary nonsense. It is, after all, a cinema – the greatest of all the arts.

So the key here is the sesquiterpenes, and it’s not the first time these compounds have been shown to be attractive to insects in scientific research. As you can see, it is on the verge of self-destruction. Man would like to manipulate flies like this insect can. Flies, next to mosquitoes, are the biggest spreaders of human disease, as are pests of crops – even soft fruits. The use of the whole insect as a specific biological weapon against flies has been considered. Well, it is always a very risky strategy when we invite the enemy of our enemy to be our friend. However, an attractive sesquiterpene alone, if it would lure males into a classic insect trap, would be an excellent and fairly safe exit.

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Mushrooms are magical and that’s how they act on us: they attract and seduce with their scent, they can be strong aphrodisiacs and sources of medicines that are as popular as antibiotics.

Sometimes they deceive, poison and cause diseases – which is worth remembering at the beginning of the mushroom season. Sometimes we hire them, isolate valuable chemicals from them. That could soon be the career of insect cell sesquiterpenes.

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