Why I Worry about Zombie Ants and Mind-Controlling Fungus

I will never look at a mushroom the same way again.

The April National Geographic has a new piece about Zombie ants, ants whose minds are controlled by a fungus which kills the ants in a bizarre way, at a location most suitable for the fungus.

Scary.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/05/110511-zombies-ants-fungus-infection-spores-bite-noon-animals-science/

I once wrote a Master’s Thesis at Georgia Tech on yeast, arguably the most primitive fungus, the type of fungus that can drive women wild with infections, and drive all of us to distraction through its ability to ferment grains and juices to make alcohol. It all depends on the particular species of yeast, of course. It depends on genetics.

I, and most any school kid, can vouch for the fact that fungus, in general, is not known for its high IQ. Of course, it has no brain per se, and apparently no neural circuitry at all. So I find it amazing that a fungus can do what our best scientific teams are incapable of doing – controlling minds.

Photo credit David Hughes

Admittedly, ants are not all that smart by human standards, but they are geniuses at being ants. They do have a brain, and typically their goal is to feed and protect their colony using well scripted behaviors. However, walking off into the jungle undergrowth and starting a new fungus colony in an ideal location, for fungus, is not part of their neural programming. And yet, the lowly fungus, against all odds, manages to rewrite the ant’s neural code to serve the fungi’s own reproductive purposes.

Fungus can infect the human brain, and even kill. It is a big killer in immunocompromised, AIDS infected humans, and it kills by causing a potentially fatal meningitis.  Perhaps it feeds off the brain, but human pathogenic fungi do not CONTROL the human brain.

At least one naturalist described the Zombie ants as chimeras – part ant, part fungus. The way I interpret that statement, what the fungus lacks in terms of neural circuitry, visual and olfactory organs, and legs, it acquires by merging with the brain of the ant. So while we routinely manipulate lower life forms like cattle and oxen to do our bidding, it seems like quite a different thing when a lower life form controls a life form vastly more complex.

But what is especially scary is that the difference between fungi that infect the human brain causing coincidental death, and fungi that control the ant brain causing a well manipulated death, is a matter of genetics. And what is one of the hottest scientific fields for now and the forseeable future? Genetic manipulation.

Actually, it’s not the ants I worry about, nor the fungus. What I worry about is what scientists like myself might do with the knowledge that fungi can control brains, even if they are simple ones. The concept of directed mind control by the use of genetically enhanced fungal vectors is simply too Orwellian for me.

Those Curious Manganese Nodules: from Intelligence History to Science Mystery

Shortly before Howard Hughes’ massive ship, the Glomar Explorer, conducted a secret mission to recover a sunken Soviet submarine in the Pacific, under the guise of collecting manganese nodules, a much smaller Research Vessel was collecting the real thing, on the Blake Plateau about 150 miles southeast of the Georgia-Florida Coast .

Duke University's R. V. Eastward

In 1970 I was the only biologist on board the Duke University’s Research Vessel, the R.V. Eastward. Also present were geologists from the Lamont Geological Observatory, and a geologist, Dr. J. Helmut Reuter, from Georgia Tech where I was in graduate school.

There is a wealth of information on the association between bacteria and ferromanganese nodules, with some scientists convinced that bacteria precipitate manganese out of solution in seawater, thus leading to nodule creation. Arguably, the best reference on this subject is the book Geomicrobiology by H.L. Ehrlich and D.K. Newman (5th ed. 2009)

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Nodules fresh off the dredge
Shipboard laboratory with decontaminated nodules

My mentors at Georgia Tech and I knew bacteria would be found coating the outside of the nodules, but we wanted to know if viable bacteria remained inside the nodules once surface contamination had been removed. My mission onboard the R.V. Eastward was to setup a small bacteriological laboratory and then search for that evidence.

Ultimately, our search was not successful. No viable bacteria were cultured.

But that is the nature of science — you don’t know until you try.

Success or not, how do scientists celebrate the end of a cruise to the Blake Plateau? Well in Nassau celebration involves fine German Beer and even finer Cuban Matasulem Rum. Yes, at the time Matasulem Rum still bearing its Cuban label could be found in the Bahamas.

Factoid for the day: Since Helmut Reuter was a geologist, he taught me that the sand around Nassau, unbelievably soft on your feet, was called oolitic sand.

Bahamas Oolitic Sand, photo credit Mark A. Wilson

 Forty years later what do we know about these curious nodules? For one thing, they are extremely slow growing, growing about a centimeter over several million years. That means the nodules in my possession are on the order of 12 million years old.

Secondly, although scientists are stimulated by the competition to discover the one correct theory among numerous hypotheses for the origin of something mysterious, such as manganese nodules, in this a case it looks like virtually everyone was correct. Nodules seem to form from precipitation of metals from seawater, especially from volcanic thermal vents, the decomposition of basalt by seawater and the precipitation of metal hydroxides through the activity of various manganese fixing bacteria. For any given nodule field, these chemical and biological processes may have been working simultaneously, or sequentially.  For any one nodule, it is presently impossible to tell which processes affected its formation.

Nodules on the Blake Plateau. Photo credit, Lamont Geological Observatory.

We should realize as we hold a 12 million year old rock in our hand, that it is far too much to expect to know details of its history over eons of time.

Manganese nodule like one in the author's collection. Photo credit, Walter Kolle.

Polar Bear in Town

In some places, the food chain gets down-right personal. In the high Arctic, a careless human is not a top predator; he is a meal. Polar Bears are methodical hunters, showing no fear of humans. When hungry, they are white death on paws.

In 2007 the U.S. Navy and I were helping the Smithsonian Institution Scientific Diving Program teach a course on under-ice diving in Ny-Alesund, Svalbard, an international research town a relatively short distance from the North Pole. Ny-Alesund is the most-northern continuously occupied settlement, and is occupied year-round by scientists and support personnel.

The fjord adjacent to Ny-Alesund is normally covered in 4-5 feet of sea ice in the springtime, making it an ideal location for training in under-ice diving. To gain access to the water, ringed seals travel some distance from land to find holes penetrating the ice, through which they enter and exit the water beneath the ice. And polar bears walk out on the ice to patiently wait for the seals to reappear, and be gobbled up. 

In 2007, the sea ice was gone. The polar bears’ food was not concentrated around breathing holes, and thus the bears were not catching many seals. They were hungry.

By law, the resident and visiting scientists had to carry rifles with them when they ventured away from the icy town to do research in the surrounding hills. But in town, no weapons were required. Polar Bears simply didn’t come into town.

Until one night.

There is only one bar in Ny-Alesund, and it specialized in serving Jesus Drinks during parties. A Jesus Drink is any alcoholic mixture served with glacial ice that is roughly two thousand years old. Get it?

On the night of the bear sighting, a petite Australian doctor friend of mine was walking back from the bar alone, and as she approached the dormitories, she saw a polar bear passing along the side of the dorm I was in. As it disappeared around a corner of the building she was left wondering if she was hallucinating. To make sure of what she saw, she ran across the end of the building just in time to see the white bear reemerge, calmly walking down a snowy road. Since she was close by, I clearly heard her yell the alarm, “Polar Bear in Town!”

The bear was headed towards the area where about a dozen Greenland Huskies, used for pulling sleds, were tied down for the night. So the deathly calm of the Arctic night was shattered by a female doctor yelling at the top of her lungs, while the vulnerable dogs were barking to save their lives — literally.

Of course I hopped out of bed, threw on my multiple layers of Long Johns, slipped into my Arctic parka and gloves and headed out the door to see the bear.

As luck would have it, our experienced dive team leader from the Smithsonian was walking in as I was headed out.

“John, you’re heading outside, in the dark, with a bear close by, and you have no gun.”

“Hmm… I see what you mean.”  I hadn’t looked at it from the perspective of a hungry bear. I turned around and went back to bed.

The next morning we found bear tracks a plenty. The dogs had scared off the bear apparently, since he didn’t claim any animals. Lucky dogs.

Well, the next evening we happened to have a party, with plenty of glowing blue Jesus ice. Although the walk to the bar, down a snowy road with no protection from the elements had not seemed daunting in the fading polar daylight, things were different when I returned to the dorm about midnight, by myself.

There was no moon so the sky was pitch black, but everything else was white, except for me. My parka was brown, and in retrospect made me look a bit like a muffin. And of course I knew that out there in the whiteness, somewhere, was a brazen, hungry bear looking for a snack.

I had never thought of myself as a potential meal, until then.

My head was on a swivel, and my not-yet dark adapted eyes were peering towards the most distant snow and ice, in all directions, looking for a movement that might warn me of a bear. And then the huskies started yelping again, in obvious alarm. That was when I realized that by the time I saw the white on white predator, he would have me. They’re fast, and I had nowhere to run for safety. I was in the open.

That is a curious feeling, knowing that you could be taken like a hunter takes a deer.

I wondered how badly it would hurt.

Well, with that Jesus ice coursing through my veins, I felt safe. That is, I felt safe once I was back in the dorm, snug in my bed.

As I lay there trying to fall asleep, I couldn’t help but reflect on how primal a fear it is, that fear of being eaten.