Mysterious Fungus Takes Over Insects, They Call Them ‘Zombie Cicadas’

Mysterious Fungus Takes Over Insects, They Call Them 'Zombie Cicadas'

A mysterious fungal pathogen can take control of insects so that they spread its spores while high. Scientists decided to study Massospora-infected woodpeckers to better understand the incredible phenomenon.

Massospora cicadina penetrates the cicada’s body and then deprives it of its genitalia, which it fills with spores. After infection, it begins to produce a substance commonly known as “speed”. This strong drug has, among other things, a euphoric effect and also encourages risky sexual behavior. During the mating process, the insect’s abdomen is torn apart, and Massospora spreads to other organisms.

Mycology professor Matt Kasson – from West Virginia University – decided to take a closer look at the fungus. To do so, as described by journalists from The Associated Press, he went to the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois (home to a public garden and herbarium, as well as the Center for Tree Science).

The terrifying effects of Massospora cicadina

As explained by the American press agency, the fungus first infects its victim and then encourages it to carry out its plan, i.e. spread the parasite’s embryos to other insects. How? By producing amphetamine in its body, which the drug addict subculture calls “speed”. Prof. Kasson and his team found 36 infected cicadas. As he admits, when people found out about his activities, they sent him another 200 insects.

Scientists want to conduct a study of Massospora’s ribonucleic acid, i.e. analyze its sequence, structure, quantity and function. In an interview with AP News, Prof. Kasson pointed out that the Massospora fungus has the “largest genome”. “It produces wild compounds. It keeps the host active – it does all these weird things,” he added. The fungus addicts insects to living on a constant amphetamine “high” (a state of euphoria after taking drugs), and also encourages them to constantly engage in copulation and transfer the fungus to other (healthy) insects. Although the fungus’s action sounds mysterious and dangerous, people have no reason to worry.

“Zombie Cicadas”

In 2020, in the journal PLOS Pathogens (a peer-reviewed scientific journal), infected insects were called “zombie cicadas.” Researchers found that when they are infected with the fungus, they are completely unaware of it. The parasite supports the insect to live as long as possible (from 13 to 17 years). Prof. Kasson said at the time that despite the fact that cicadas lose a large part of their bodies after being infected by the fungus, this does not affect their daily lives – these insects fly long distances and engage in copulation as if no transformation had occurred in their bodies.

Prof. Kasson pointed out that copulation is not the only way cicadas spread the fungus embryos. They also spread them during simple movement on tree and plant branches or while flying.

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