Parasites are ubiquitous among eukaryotes, with some estimates suggesting that for every animal species there are at least 100 parasites and that parasites outnumber free-living species 4 to 1. For a variety of reasons, getting true estimates of parasite numbers is virtually impossible, but there is no doubt that they play a major ecological and evolutionary role. With all this competition among parasites for suitable hosts, it should not be surprising that some have gotten particularly creative in finding ways to disperse.
If you haven't heard of the fungal parasite that takes over the brains of insects, it's an amazing story. It's an amazing system that David Hughes has been working on at Penn State since staring his position there in 2011. There's certainly been no shortage of interest in the system, but the lab is looking to transition from understanding the ecology of this relationship to examining the cellular scale.
That's where postdoc Charissa de Bekker, comes in. Charissa is in the process of understanding what's going on in the heads of those ants. Literally. Using the recently published genome of the caterpillar Ophiocordyceps parasite and draft genomes of the parasite species in the ants as a backdrop, she will use the expressed genes (transcriptome) and metabolites of the parasite during infection to reveal the mechanisms for ant mind control.
Charrisa has launched a crowdfunding campaign to get this work rolling and produce the preliminary data needed to write a fundable proposal. As of now, the project has 18 days remaining and is only just over 20% of it's goal of $5,306. Beyond the fact that this is a very cool project that will produce some enticing data, you will be supporting the work of a new lab getting established in a growing field. Plus, the more we know about zombies the better prepared we will be for the Zombie Apocalypse*.
So head on over an donate to this project.
*This research is a better use of your money than stock piling food and ammo.