Zombie Like Caterpillars

Just in time for the Halloween season, a story of zombie-like gypsy moths. It has apparently been known for some time that among invertebrates, parasites are able to affect and change the behavior of their host in a zombie-like fashion. The exact mechanism through which this is accomplished, however, has not been known.

Now, in a study published in Science Magazine, scientists studying gypsy moths reveal that they have found a genetic basis for these aberrant behavioral changes. In particular, the study states that:

Gypsy moths infected by a baculovirus climb to the top of trees to die, liquefy, and “rain” virus on the foliage below to infect new hosts. The viral gene that manipulates climbing behavior of the host was identified, providing evidence of a genetic basis for the extended phenotype.

OK, so zombies are not just the stuff of science fiction. Somehow, not really all that surprising.

However, what really freaks me out about this story is that apparently the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and The Northern Research Station have in the past partnered up to produce this baculovirus to use in the control of gypsy moth populations.(See here.)

But if this genetic link is only now being discovered, it means that we have been playing Russian roulette with germ warfare without really knowing what we were doing.

Scary, but again, somehow not really all that surprising.