Parasites that take over hosts, effectively turning them into zombies, are far from rare. But only recently have scientists started to work out the sophisticated biochemistry that the parasites use.
n the rain forests of Costa Rica lives Anelosimus octavius, a species of spider that sometimes displays a strange and ghoulish habit. From time to time these spiders abandon their own webs and build radically different ones, a home not for the spider but for a parasitic wasp that has been living inside it. Then the spider dies — a zombie architect, its brain hijacked by its parasitic invader — and out of its body crawls the wasp’s larva, which has been growing inside it all this time.
There are many of such examples of zombies in nature. They are far from rare. Viruses, fungi, protozoans, wasps, tapeworms and a vast number of other parasites can control the brains of their hosts and get them to do their bidding. But only recently have scientists started to work out the sophisticated biochemistry that the parasites use.
“The knowledge that parasites can manipulate their hosts is old. The new part is how they do it,” said Shelley Adamo of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, a co-editor of the new issue. “The last 5 to 10 years have really been exciting.”
In the case of the Costa Rican spider, the new web is splendidly suited to its wasp invader. Unlike the spider’s normal web, mostly a tangle of threads, this one has a platform topped by a thick sheet that protects it from the rain. The wasp larva crawls to the edge of the platform and spins a cocoon that hangs down through an opening that the spider has kindly provided for the parasite.
To manipulate the spiders, the wasp must have genes that produce proteins that alter spider behavior, and in some species, scientists are now pinpointing this type of gene. Such is the case with the baculovirus, a virus sprinkled liberally on leaves in forests and gardens. (The cabbage in a serving of coleslaw carries 100 million baculoviruses.)
David P. Hughes of Penn State University and his colleagues have found that a single gene, known as egt, is responsible for driving the caterpillars up trees. The gene encodes an enzyme. When the enzyme is released inside the caterpillar, it destroys a hormone that signals a caterpillar to stop feeding and molt.
Dr. Hughes suspects that the virus goads the caterpillar into a feeding frenzy. Normally, gypsy moth caterpillars come out at night to feed and then return to crevices near the bottom of trees to hide from predators. The zombie caterpillars, on the other hand, cannot stop searching for food.
“The infected individuals are out there, just eating and eating,” Dr. Hughes said. “They’re stuck in a loop.”
Whether humans are susceptible to this sort of zombie invasion is less clear. It is challenging enough to figure out how parasites manipulate invertebrates, which have a few hundred thousand neurons in their nervous systems. Vertebrates, including humans, have millions or billions of neurons, and so scientists have made fewer advances in studying their zombification.