Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Zombie Fungus

Cordyceps- Wikimedia
The title Zombie Fungus got my attention.  This Planet Earth Video describes how a Cordyceps fungus takes over the body of a jungle ant species.  As is seen in other social insects, the worker ants carry the victim far away from the colony before the fungal spores extend out of the victim's body, ready to attack other ants of the species.
So what does this mean to us as Master Naturalists beside the morbid interest?  The more than 400 Cordyceps fungal species are a good lesson in why the study of various weird species is important.  Many of these species attack just a single species of ant or other arthropods.  What if that animal were to become extinct along with its Cordyceps parasite?

In at least one case, it would have been tragic.   Cyclosporin A, is an immunosuppressive drug used to treat many diseases as well as in organ transplantation.  Without finding a particular fungus, we would never had this valuable drug.
"Some Cordyceps species are sources of biochemicals with interesting biological and pharmacological properties, like cordycepin; the anamorph of Cordyceps subsessilis which was the source of ciclosporin—a drug helpful in human organ transplants, as it suppresses the immune system."*
Whenever we lose a species, we lose a tiny ecosystem, many times without ever knowing it exists.  Did the Ivory Billed Woodpecker have a parasite of importance?  We will never know.  Who knows how many medical possibilities may have disappeared right before our eyes?

* Wikipedia

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