The Loom

Thanks to PZ Myers for calling attention to this superb video of Corydceps, a parasitic fungus that drives its insect host up a plant before growing a spike out of its head. Leave it to David Attenborough, master of the nature documentary, to bring the beauty of this parasite to video. I’ve seen photographs of Cordyceps before, but I never knew it made such a graceful entrance.

What’s particularly cool about Cordyceps is that it is not alone. Other parasites drive their hosts to bizarre heights. Another fungus, called Entomophthora muscae, drives houseflies and other insects upwards, climbing screen doors in some cases, before springing out of its host’s body.

In the case of Entomophthora and Cordyceps, hosts go up so that parasites can come back down again–specifically, down on potential insect hosts living on the ground. But other parasites have another direction in mind. The lancet fluke drives its insect hosts up to the tops of plants so that grazing mammals may eat them. Only in the gut of a cow or some other grazer can the flukes mature and reproduce. These creatures are like the birds, bats, and pterosaurs of the parasitic world, hitting on the same brilliant solution again and again.

(Here’s the place where I write about these parasites in my book, Parasite Rex.) [Update: Excerpt link at Amazon link fixed.]

Comments

  1. #1 sparc
    December 4, 2006

    Reminds me of Dicrocoelium dendriticum in ants.
    BTW, what drove King Kong up to the Empire State Building

  2. #2 boojieboy
    December 4, 2006
  3. #3 Comstock
    December 4, 2006

    Have any parasitic organisms been shown to alter the behavior of vertebrates similarly, so that the new behavior furthers the survival/reproduction of the parasite?

  4. #4 Carl Zimmer
    December 4, 2006

    Comstock:

    You betcha. See these posts on Toxoplasma and a recent talk I gave about manipulation.

  5. #5 TAW
    December 4, 2006

    wait a minute!
    “On the other hand, the asexual state of C. subsessilis is a lovely, white mold called Tolypocladium inflatum. ”

    ??? since when do they assign different species (and genus!!!) names to organisms? i’m guessing they were named separately because they didn’t know it was the same organism (like with other parasites, some of which Carl describes in Parasite Rex), but why do they keep it?

  6. #6 drcharles
    December 7, 2006

    wow – that is some of the most stunning and shocking video I’ve ever seen. thanks for the link and the knowledge.

  7. #7 MedStudentWife
    December 7, 2006

    hehehee.. *EEEEWWWWWEEEE*…. at least those things living inour eyelashes arent so bad…

    but still***EEEEWWWWWEEWEWEWEWWW***

    *lol*

  8. #8 sravana
    December 7, 2006

    I notice that one species of cordyceps from China is commonly used in TCM – it’s called dong chong xia cao.

    As far as the above video being safe for breakfast… I’m not so sure!

  9. #9 charlie wagner
    December 9, 2006

    Carl,
    Despite the fact that you and I disagree on the subject of evolution, darwinism and intelligent design, I have to honestly say that I find your blog to be the “Best Science Blog” that I read. You’re certainly a lot more “scientific” than either “Panda’s Thumb”, which is filled with ideologues proselytizing their irrational belief system or “Pharyngula”, which has taken near-rage and personal insult to new levels.

  10. #10 Steviepinhead
    December 9, 2006

    Charlie’s just ticked ’cause he’s running out of places that haven’t banned him yet!

    He does have a point, here, though: The Loom is more of a pure science play–and does an excellent job at it!–than PT or Pharyngula. Pharyngula’s science articles are great, but it’s not intended to be confined to those–it’s PZ’s soap box, and more power to him.

    PT is likewise intended to be a forum for airing news and views about the attacks on evolutionary science by the trolls, wingnuts and other psuedoscientific loonies–again, not a pure science play, though timely scientific articles do appear and rigorous scientific arguments are made.

    As for Charlie, he reminds me of the tuna in the old StarKist ads–good taste in music, but his evo-bio arguments don’t go down nearly as well.

  11. #11 romunov
    December 10, 2006

    “??? since when do they assign different species (and genus!!!) names to organisms? i’m guessing they were named separately because they didn’t know it was the same organism (like with other parasites, some of which Carl describes in Parasite Rex), but why do they keep it?”

    Back in the “good old days” when molecular techniques weren’t as refined or non-exhistant, anamorphs (asexual forms or “Fungi imperfecti”) were given totally different geni (pl. for genus?) due to their striking morphological and probably ecological, difference.

    For example, Candida is an anamorph of well know S. cerevisiae.

  12. #12 charlie wagner
    December 10, 2006

    Stevie wrote:

    “Charlie’s just ticked ’cause he’s running out of places that haven’t banned him yet!”

    I wasnít banned, I was censored. Thereís a big difference. I told Paul that I would respect his wishes not to post on his blog if he asked me politely and respectfully. He apparently didnít have the cojones to agree to this simple request so now weíre playing it the way he wants it. His response was to block my IP address, (which took about 30 seconds to fix),and to delete all my messages as they appear. So now Iím pissed. ;-) Did you know that if you disconnect from your broadband connection by turning the power off to the modem for 8 hours, the ISP will think youíve left for good and reset your IP address? When you reconnect the power, the ISP will assign you a new IP address.
    However, despite the fact that I can post there anytime I want, I probably will not. Certainly, I will not resort to such infantile tactics as spamming the blog or launching a DOS attack, so Paul can rest assured that I will continue to behave towards him as I always have in the past: in a respectful and polite manner.

  13. #13 Celia
    December 10, 2006

    Wow. I wonder what kind of parasite it would take to make a human do something crazy before he or she died.

  14. #14 Neal Deesit
    December 14, 2006

    “Wow. I wonder what kind of parasite it would take to make a human do something crazy before he or she died.”

    How about a parasitic son inveigling his aged mother into changing her will, thereby bequeathing her substantial estate entirely to him and disinheriting her other four children?

  15. #15 MC
    December 16, 2006

    Here is a strategy used by crickets to avoid being infected by a parastic fly.

  16. #16 Dave Carlson
    December 16, 2006

    Wow. I don’t know how I missed this until now. That was beautiful; I got chills watching it.

  17. #17 Mike Kaspari
    December 16, 2006

    Couldn’t happen to a nicer ant. These “bullet ants” are Paraponera clavata. They get their name from the wallop of their sting. In Costa Rica they’re called “24 ants”, because that’s how long it takes for the the sting to wear off. I got my initiation one morning, wading through some low palms that I was separating like the waters of a shallow lagoon. The sting was presaged by a stridulating “eenk eenk” and the smell of garlic and then….waam! Felt like my hand was being slammed in a car door every 30 seconds or so.

    That said…

    Crick once said (I paraphrase) that great science is revealing the processes of the invisible. I suspect that such parasites and pathogens are a great invisible hand guiding ecosystems.

    MK

    Getting Things Done in Academia–toward building your intellectual infrastructure
    eebatou.wordpress.com

  18. #18 marcello
    April 19, 2007

    the video is sadly no longer available.
    M

  19. #19 Kylee Peterson
    May 16, 2007

    I found what must be the same video at a different Youtube location:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzi8cZ1I12U

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.