The metabolic alteration and apparent preservation of the zombie ant brain

J Insect Physiol. 2019 Oct;118:103918. doi: 10.1016/j.jinsphys.2019.103918. Epub 2019 Aug 7.


Some parasites can manipulate the behavior of their animal hosts to increase transmission. An interesting area of research is understanding how host neurobiology is manipulated by microbes to the point of displaying such aberrant behaviors. Here, we characterize the metabolic profile of the brain of an insect at the moment of the behavioral manipulation by a parasitic microbe. Our model system are ants infected with the parasitic fungus Ophiocordyceps kimflemingiae (=unilateralis), which manipulates ants to climb and bite into plant substrates, before killing the host (i.e. zombie ants). At the moment of the behavioral manipulation by the fungus, the host's brain is not invaded by the fungus which is known to extensively invade muscle tissue. We found that, despite not being invaded by the parasite, the brains of manipulated ants are notably different, showing alterations in neuromodulatory substances, signs of neurodegeneration, changes in energy use, and antioxidant compound that signal stress reactions by the host. Ergothionine, a fungal derived compound with known neuronal cytoprotection functions was found to be highly elevated in zombie ant brains suggesting the fungus, which does not invade the central nervous system, is preserving the brain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ants / drug effects
  • Ants / metabolism*
  • Ants / microbiology*
  • Behavior, Animal / drug effects
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Brain / pathology
  • Ergothioneine / toxicity
  • Hypocreales / chemistry
  • Hypocreales / pathogenicity*
  • Metabolome


  • Ergothioneine