A West Virginia University research team led by Matt Kasson, associate professor of forest pathology and mycology, recently uncovered Massospora-infected “Zombie Cicadas'' in West Virginia.
Massospora is a psychedelic manipulative fungus that infects and alters the behavior of cicadas.
Brian Lovett, a postdoctoral researcher for Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, explained how the Massospora species infects cicadas by manipulating the insects’ mating cycle.
“This pathogen manipulates the behavior of cicadas such that infected males will attract uninfected males to mate with the fungus: this spreads the fungal infection,” he said. “Since the fungus is manipulating the cicadas, they are considered zombies.”
Lovett collects genome sequencing of the fungi and studies their manipulation of cicada behaviors, also known as “active host transmission.”
Kasson and Angie Macias, a doctoral student in Kasson’s lab, have been working on this system for years.
Kasson’s team previously identified drugs found in infected cicadas.
“Infected periodical cicadas contained an amphetamine called cathinone and annual cicadas contained the ‘magic mushroom’ chemical psilocybin,” Lovett said.
The psychedelic chemicals allow Massospora to easily put its host under a mind-controlling trance.
“These discoveries are not only super cool but also have a lot of potential in helping us understand insects better, and perhaps learn better ways to control pest species using fungi that manipulate host behaviors,” Macias explained in a press release.
This year, Kasson’s research team had a unique opportunity to study cicadas up close in southeastern West Virginia.
Massospora needs cicadas to live, making research on the fungus difficult to conduct.
“We need to collect all of our samples from the wild,” Lovett said. “This hurdle may have prevented other groups from working on this fungus because very few studies investigate this fungus. Due to this, much of our work on the genomics and development of this interesting group of fungi is new to science.”
Kasson and Lovett’s research discoveries on Massospora have been featured on popular television networks such as National Geographic and CNN.
The team’s research findings were also published in PLOS Pathogens journal in an article titled, “Behavioral betrayal: How select fungal parasites enlist living insects to do their bidding.”