Zombie Mind-Control Fungus Sends Flies to Their Death Before Bursting From Their Abdomens

A mind-controlling "zombie" fungus that kills its prey at sunset sounds like the stuff of nightmares. But, according to a group of researchers in California, it's very real. A team led by biologist Carolyn Elya describe how this fungus invades the brains of fruit flies, leads them to climb to high altitudes and then strike a "death pose" that allows the spores of the fungus to spread.

The researchers explain how the fungus Entomophthora muscae manipulates fruit flies in a preprinted article available on biorxiv, which has not been peer-reviewed. The scientists first noticed in 2015 that some flies they'd been studying for separate work were mysteriously dying with their wings raised and with signs of "fungal growth" on their bodies. The dead flies looked white and swollen as Entomophthora grew from their abdomens.

As the blogger Neuroskeptic points out, the researchers realized that the flies the fungus infected in the wild are close cousins of Drosophila Melanogaster, a fly that's been studied to death (excuse the pun) by scientists. So, by infecting this well-studied fly with the fungus, Elya and her team could bring to bear all the knowledge about the brains and bodies of these flies in order to understand this strange fungus.

To do that, the researchers infected a healthy group of lab flies by leaving them overnight with dead flies whose bodies had been infected. They found that the infected flies followed a particularly disturbing pattern of death.

"On their final day of life they climb to a high location, extend their proboscides and become affixed to the substrate, then finally raise their wings to strike a characteristic death pose that clears a path for spores that are forcibly ejected from their abdomen to land on and infect other flies."

They also note that, as this process unfolds and the fly's proboscis extends to the floor, "the fly may move its legs in what appears to be an apparent attempt to escape" the fungus's control, "but the material that emanates from the proboscis is sufficient to keep it anchored in place." And by looking at slices of the flies' brains under a microscope, researchers were able to confirm that the fungus takes root in the brain.

As any mind-controlling fungus enthusiast might note, this isn't the first time such an organism has made headlines. As Newsweek previously reported in November, researchers discovered that the parasite cordyceps is able to control the movements of ants by colonizing their muscle fibers. That Entomophthora muscae controls the brain and not the body is what makes it so interesting, and perhaps, all the more terrifying.