BIO 203


    Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is classified as a parasitic organism, so interaction with a host organism is essential to the organism’s survival. The fungus infects Camponotus ants, but which species is infected depends upon the subspecies of O. unilateralis (Hughes 2010). The subspecies are very host specific, and if they are in the presence of any other type of ant they will not be able to infect it (Hughes 2010).
    O. unilateralis uses the ants for two purposes. The first purpose is as a transportation unit that will move the fungus to an environment suitable for reproduction(Pontoppidon et al. 2009). O. unilateralis does this by hijacking the nervous system of the infected ant and essentially taking control of its motor functions. Once the ant is in place, having bitten down the second purpose becomes clear (Pontoppidon et al 2009).
    The next phase for the zombie ant fungus is to kill the ant and use it as a nutrient source as it grows out of the ants head (Hughes 2010). It continues to grow in its ideal environment and once the fruiting bodies are produced they are released onto the forest floor (Hughes 2010).
    Interestingly enough, this parasite can become infected by another parasitic fungus. This parasitic fungus is smeared all over the ants for the purpose of protection against O. unilateralis (Kennedy 2012). The hyperparasite is extremely successful and when employed against the zombie ant fungus it allows for only about 6.5 percent of the zombie ants spores to be viable for reproduction (Kennedy 2012). The ants tend to cover themselves in this parasite to protect themselves from protection (Kennedy 2012).
    A relative to the zombie ant fungus, O. sinensis, infects the larvae of ghost moths, been subject to research in the medical field (Panda 2011). It has already become a traditional medicine in China, and research continues on the possible medicinal uses of the fungus (Panda 2011). The potential for medicinal uses of Cordyceps fungi is still a relatively new field, but progress is being made in a manner that industrial level production may be economically sound in the near future. O. unilateralis, on the other hand, has no ill effects on humans, nor does it provide any benefits for them. It has only been documented to interact with the ants it infects (Hughes 2010). There have been no benefits or harm done to humans, but it is an interesting study in chemical signaling that affects the nervous system (Panda 2011). Other notable fungi that are involved in the medicinal field include  Claviceps purprea, Cordyceps subsessilis, Pleurotus Ostreatus, Ganoderma lucidum, Lycoperdon pyriforme, Trametes versicolor, Psilocybe cubensis, Auricularia auriculara, and Piptoporus betulines.


Fungi are amazing and diverse organisms. To learn more about fungi from one of UW-L's own professors, click here!

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