Like other fungi pathogenic to insects in the Ophiocordyceps genus, O. unilateralis targets a specific host species, the Camponotus leonardi ant. However the fungus may parasitize other closely related species of ants with lesser degrees of host manipulation and reproductive success.
The fungus’s spores enter the body of the insect likely through the cuticle by enzymatic activity, where they begin to consume the non-vital soft tissues. Yeast stages of the fungus spread in the ant’s body and presumably produce compounds that affect the ant’s brain and change its behaviour by currently unknown mechanisms. The insect climbs up the stem of a plant and uses its mandibles to secure itself to a leaf vein, with abnormal force, leaving dumbbell-shaped marks on it. A search through plant fossil databases revealed similar marks on a fossil leaf from theMessel pit which is 48 million years old.
The fungus then kills the ant, and continues to grow as its hyphae invade more soft tissues and structurally fortify the ant’s exoskeleton. More mycelia then sprout out of the ant, and securely anchor it to the plant substrate while secreting antimicrobials to ward off competition. When the fungus is ready to reproduce, its fruiting bodies grow from the ant’s head and rupture, releasing the spores. This process takes 4 to 10 days.
The changes in the behavior of the infected ants are very specific, giving rise to the popular term “zombie ants”, and tuned for the benefit of the fungus. The ants suffer from convulsions causing them to fall to the ground and preventing them from finding their way back to their canopy. The ants generally clamp to a leaf’s vein about 25 cm above the ground, on the northern side of the plant, in an environment with 94-95% humidity and temperatures between 20 and 30 °C. Infections may lead to 20 to 30 dead ants per square metre. “Each time, they are on leaves that are a particular height off the ground and they have bitten into the main vein [of a leaf] before dying”. When the dead ants are moved to other places and positions, further vegetative growth and sporulation either fails to occur or results in undersized and abnormal reproductive structures.-http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophiocordyceps_unilateralis
In times of exceptional technological advancement, times of Wiki – leaks, and prisms and Radia tapes, one wonders if these scandals might not after all be the result of increasing surveillance of individuals resulting in a possible infringement of certain freedoms guaranteed by a democratic system of governance! The very idea of snooping on individuals is nothing short of voyeurism and it is in bad taste. Will individuals soon have no privacy left to cherish? This discussion leads me to the incredible story about the ophius cordiceps unilateralis fungus which takes over the bodily functions of an ant making it no more no less than a vehicle in the hands of a ruthless driver. The story is that the fungus enters an ant’s body through its respiratory system. It invades the ant’s brain and changes how it perceives smell, because ants do everything they do from their smell of pheromones, right? This rather clever microscopic fungal spore, then makes the ant climb up the stem of a plant and bite hard on to a leaf, with an abnormal force. The fungus then kills the ant, and continues to grow, leaving the ant’s exoskeleton intact. So, a small fungus drives an ant around as a vehicle, uses it as food and shelter and then as the ultimate monument to itself. And when the fungus is ready to reproduce, its fruiting bodies grow from the ant’s head and rupture releasing the spores, letting the wind carry them to more unsuspecting food. The idea of free will disappears the moment an ant’s body is invaded by this rather enterprising micro-organism! A relationship that might be termed parasitic rather than symbiotic!
The very idea of curbing freedom, invading the privacy of individuals spying on them, and forcing them to ascribe to a particular set of ideas is as parasitic and as harmful as the effect of the ophius cordiceps unilateralis fungus invading the healthy body of an ant. But then this parasitic relationship might not in many sense be pathological at all. Psychological brain washing of individual to conform to a particular school of thought or belief might be as powerful a means as a pathological invasion by a particular organism. The increasing popularity of cults lead by figureheads who are none other than highly motivated leaders with exceptional powers of persuasion and charisma can also be considered in this case. History has shown how such charismatic cult leaders have been able to influence individuals so much that they were gladly led to commit mass suicide. Take for example the story of David Koresh and the Ranch Davidians who had to be quelled by members of the FBI and police enforcement agencies in America. Another example of the subjugation of human victims to a nefarious process is rather horrifyingly portrayed in the film titled The Matrix!
Are we then headed towards a parasitical situation in the twenty-first century which deals with the total subjugation of the individual will to that of a calculating and highly motivated entity that wishes to bind the individual will towards its own ends? The second world war saw mass hysteria being whipped against particular communities by the Nazi regime in Germany. Jews, gypsies and queers were targeted and sent to concentration camps to feed the insatiable hunger of a regime that fed on subjugation. Today, one can observe an increasing need for subjugation of weaker sections of communities by mainline communities, and this is certainly a disturbing trend resulting in the need to curb dissent! The fungus that invades the body of the ant to further its own needs is a metaphor for the human tendency to force conformity.
If free will is under attack today, the only anti-dote lies in the need to promote and appreciate free-will! The democratic system of governance promises individual rights and these need to be protected in any case. The various rights enshrined in various constitutions of democratic countries throughout the world promise rights to individuals. These include the right to speech, the right to religion, the right to freedom of movement, the right to employment, the right to education and so on. When any regime attempts to curb the rights of any individual or community, it is acting like the ophius cordiceps unilateralis fungus which takes over the individuality of the poor ant! Spying on individuals, forcing communities to conform to popular beliefs and philosophies of mainline communities might all be parasitic in nature. The question is, do we need a situation where individuals are targeted like the ant by the fungus that invades its vital systems in order to propagate itself? It is clear, therefore that invasion of free will is detrimental to life as a whole. A modern society should pride itself in a culture of free will and the richness of diverse thinking. Creativity should be nurtured, and the right to think differently should be encouraged. How then can modern societies encourage the richness of free thought? It is clear that this is possible only through the promotion of a philosophy of tolerance and free thought. The tendency to curb free thought can be observed in every walk of life, whether it is in the class room or legislative assemblies. One should learn to appreciate the uniqueness of free thought and the fact that each individual is an entity to be appreciated for being different! if one of the unique quality of humanity lies in an understanding of individuality, then one should respect this and not in any way control it!
This is an article prompted by inputs from my student, Prateyush Dass who wanted to know about the implications of the parasitic fungal invasion of ants.