Penn State Scientist Explores Zombie Virus

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In what is becoming an all too common occurrence in nature, parasitic organisms take control of unsuspecting hosts, turning them into zombie-like creatures. Despite how scary it sounds, this is fairly common in nature. In fact, this very issue has plagued scientists for years as to why some organisms, like viruses, fungi, wasps, tapeworms, and a multitude of other organisms can take over the minds of these creatures.

David Hughes, an entomologist here at Penn State, has unlocked some information vital to this zombie-like phenomenon. As The New York Times reported last week, Hughes, his associates, and Kelli Hoover — another researcher at Penn State — found a single gene, egt, which affects caterpillars. When egt “attacks,” an enzyme encoded in the gene is released throughout the caterpillar’s system. This enzyme destroys another enzyme that the caterpillars need to stop feeding and start molting. These infected caterpillars will continue to eat and eat, stuck up on top of a tree, until they die. When these caterpillars die, they literally melt, spewing more virus throughout the forest. Other caterpillars pick up on this virus when they crawl around, looking for food.

Another area of research that Hughes has been working on is in ants. In this strange sort of zombie ant, a fungus takes over the minds of carpenter ants. Once the ant is infected, it climbs down from the canopy of a tree in search of green leaves — an ideal spot for the fungus to grow. The ant’s mind somehow directs the ant to chomp down on a leaf, where it dies.

However, that’s not all that happens. Once the ant dies, a strange fungus starts growing from the ant’s head. The ant’s insides are broken down by the fungus, turning into a fuel source for the fungus to survive. However, the mandible muscles are unaffected, keeping the ant stuck in a death grip on the leaf. The fungus is protected from other organisms by growing out from cracks in the ant’s shell. After this strange fungus grows for a week or so, the spores drop down to the floor of the forest, where other ants can pick them up, ultimately turning into zombie ants themselves.

If that’s not all, I’m just going to leave you guys with this strange, but totally disgusting video of how a parasitic wasp turns a caterpillar into parasitic wasp food, where the wasp larvae control the caterpillar’s mind, effectively turning it into a zombie.

Have I scared you? Luckily, zombie viruses only affect things in nature, and not humans…yet. It doesn’t hurt to start preparing, right?

Thanks to Onward State staff writer Joe Rogachevsky for making the graphics.

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Meghin is a senior majoring in Broadcast Journalism and minoring in English. She transferred from the Harrisburg campus as a junior to finish out her schooling at University Park. She has a passion for all things music, fashion, art, and food. She's a Pennsylvania native (born outside of Pittsburgh, and lived in Lebanon for 11 years), but resides in Virginia when she's not in school, and has moved a total of ten times in her life, mostly thanks to the military.

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