Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Isn't nature wonderful?

This story is a few years old, but I'd never come across it before, and it's downright fascinating:

A parasitic worm that makes the grasshopper it invades jump into water and commit suicide does so by chemically influencing its brain, a study of the insects' proteins reveal.

The parasitic Nematomorph hairworm (Spinochordodes tellinii) develops inside land-dwelling grasshoppers and crickets until the time comes for the worm to transform into an aquatic adult. Somehow mature hairworms brainwash their hosts into behaving in way they never usually would - causing them to seek out and plunge into water.

Once in the water the mature hairworms - which are three to four times longer that their hosts when extended - emerge and swim away to find a mate, leaving their host dead or dying in the water. David Biron, one of the study team at IRD in Montpellier, France, notes that other parasites can also manipulate their hosts' behaviour: "'Enslaver' fungi make their insect hosts die perched in a position that favours the dispersal of spores by the wind, for example."

But the "mechanisms underlying this intriguing parasitic strategy remain poorly understood, generally", he says.

From the New Scientist. We might feel comforted in the fact that mammals' brains are a lot bigger than those of insects, so surely our behaviour couldn't be influenced by a parasite or pathogen. Or could it?


Fat Arse said...

Maybe this phenomena explains my perverse addiction to tobacco! Is there a nicotine-worm?

Stimpson said...

This reminded me of Daniel Dennett's use of the lancet fluke to explain the power of memes.