The magical “zombie fungus”

  In the fantasy horror movie Gaia released in 2021, there is such a horrifying scene: deep in the rain forest, fungi spew spores parasitizing on people, and various mushrooms grow from the skin, seemingly beautiful and beautiful. Disgusting “flowers” slowly devour human flesh until death… The film uses fungus parasitism, an alternative horrible method, to tell the story of nature’s revenge and counterattack against humans.
  Fungus is neither a plant nor an animal. It is a classification of microorganisms. It is widely distributed and has many types. There are more than 100,000 species in the world. The familiar mushrooms and fungi are the most typical fungi. Different from bacteria, fungi can produce the nutrients they need; unlike viruses, they have their own complete organelles. They mainly live by parasitism or saprophytic methods, and grow by absorbing the nutrients of the host. For example, mushrooms reproduce with the help of nutrients from dead wood.
  However, parasitism is also different. Some fungi can only parasitize plants and are fixed in place to “bloom and bear fruit”; some can parasitize some insects and directly invade their brains, affecting or even controlling their nerves, turning the host into a “zombie” that can be controlled. ——That is, the brain loses consciousness, and the body still acts as usual.
  In the tropical rainforests of South America, there is such a magical “zombie fungus” called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. Their spores are floating in the air, looking for a parasitic object-ants at any time. After encountering the host, it will dive into its body and begin to grow wildly.
  This “zombie fungus” will first swallow the tissues in the ant’s body, but will not immediately put them to death. Instead, it will parasitize them to keep them active. Once they mature, they will release a chemical substance to invade. The ant’s brain then controls the ant. “Zombie ants” controlled by fungi no longer have their own behavior and life. At the last moment of life, fungi will force ants to leave their safe nests and climb onto nearby plants. It manipulates the ants to stay at a height of about 25 cm from the ground. The temperature and humidity at this location are just right, which is conducive to the growth of fungi. “Zombie ants” whose brains are controlled are forced to bite the central veins of the leaves with their jaws, trapping themselves on the leaves.
  At this time, a long stalk grows from the ant’s head, forming a globular sac full of spores. After a few days, the fungus releases spores for reproduction, which are scattered on the ants that come and go on the ground, and then these spores parasitize and mature on the ants.
  This sounds really scary. So, will this terrifying “zombie fungus” infect humans and stage a realistic version of “The Walking Dead”?
  Scientists have discovered from related studies on the parasites of “zombie fungi” and infection patterns: Although there are many types of fungi, and different “zombie fungi” can infect different kinds of insects, for example, there are special parasites that infect North American cycle cicadas. There are also fungi that form “cordyceps” after infecting the larvae of Hepidia, but the common feature of all “zombie fungi” parasitic hosts is that they can only parasitize insects. So far, people have not found any case about the “zombie fungus” parasitizing vertebrates.
  The reason is mainly due to the heat-labile properties of fungi. Fungi are extremely sensitive to temperature. Generally speaking, when the temperature exceeds 30°C, its activity will be greatly reduced, and there is a risk of death when the temperature exceeds 37°C. Therefore, vertebrates with constant temperature will not be infected with fungal fatal diseases.
  What’s even more surprising is that Heliotrophicola has an unknown natural enemy of parasitic fungi, known as “anti-zombie fungi”. The parasitic will enter the ant’s carcass before Heliotrophins releases spores. Attacking them results in the parasitized Heliotrophins spores with only 6% to 7% of the sporangia survival rate, which limits the damage to the ant population, and the ants have already learned to cultivate the natural enemies of this Heliotrophins. , In order to achieve mutually beneficial symbiosis.
  All things grow and restrain each other, but they can coexist harmoniously. Nature is so magical and awe-inspiring. Mankind’s exploration of nature will never end. Only by following the laws of nature can we go further.