Super-Sized Fungus Attacking Cicadas

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In a previous post, I noted how US scientists are eagerly seizing a rare opportunity to study the emergence of cicadas in the US this year.

A recent article on the Time magazine, discusses about periodical cicadas, known for their eerie red eyes and otherworldly mating calls, can also be hosts to a bizarre phenomenon: some are infected by a fungus that turns them into hypersexual “zombies on speed.”

This unusual fungus, Massospora cicadina, discovered by West Virginia University mycology professor Matt Kasson and his team, including his son Oliver and graduate student Angie Macias, produces amphetamine within the cicada’s body. The fungus manipulates the cicada’s behavior, driving them to mate excessively, thereby spreading the fungus as a sexually transmitted disease among their species.

This was a mycological oddity for a long time. It’s got the biggest genome. It produces wild compounds. It keeps the host active — all these quirks to it.

– Matt Kasson, on Time

Prof. Kasson told Times that this particular fungus has the largest known genome of any fungus, with approximately 1.5 billion base pairs, about 30 times longer than that of many more commonly known fungi. Its spores remain with the cicadas as they live underground for 17 years.

Kasson and his small team collected 36 infected cicadas in his brief Chicago area jaunt with people sending him another 200 or so from all over. He’s still waiting for an RNA analysis of the fungus.

Some cicada experts have estimated maybe one in 1,000 of the periodical cicadas are infected with this fungus, but it’s not much more than a guess. Mount St. Joseph University’s Gene Kritsky, a biologist who wrote the book on this year’s unique dual emergence, said it might be skewed because the healthy cicadas stay higher up in the trees.

– Source: Time

Prof. Kasson said to have tried out this fungus to make sure that they were from the inside of a female so more antiseptic. He told “Man, it was so bitter, explaining that he immediately rinsed his mouth out. It tasted like something you would consider poisonous.”

Source: Scientists Track a Super-Sized Fungus That Hijacks Cicadas | Time