Zombies Used for the Greater Good

We all know that zombies kill humans.  Hollywood has drilled that reality into us one cornered hero at a time.  Now, it seems, the parasitic relationship that exists between some insects may redefine that cliché.  Glyptapanteles, a genus of endoparasitoid wasp, is one such insect.  Female Glyptapanteles, colloquially referred to as voodoo wasps, traditionally implant their fertilized eggs into one of several species of caterpillar hosts.  The caterpillars then continue to feed and grow until their fourth or fifth molt, at which time the voodoo wasp larvae emerge and setup shop on a nearby twig.  From this point forward, the host caterpillar’s behavior changes radically.  It will discontinue its otherwise ravenous search for food, and will post up adjacent to the wasp larvae.  Acting as a sort of bodyguard, the caterpillar will then thrash wildly at any would-be predators of the larvae, significantly decreasing their mortality rate.  See the video below as an example of how stark this behavioral difference is between zombified and non-zombified caterpillars:



So, if this isn’t morbidly fascinating in and of itself, the USDA has recently evaluated several species of Glyptapanteles bred to attack the highly invasive gypsy moth.  After experimental use of voodoo wasps showed success in protecting Californian olive groves from such pests, scientists sought to narrow down the specific genes that determine which pests the wasps will seek as hosts.  When successful, the hope is that these voodoo wasps can be deployed against pests for whom traditional pesticides are generally ineffective or undesirable, and to help reduce the financial loss associated with the billions of tons of crops destroyed by such pests each year.  There is also hope that a better understanding of the genetic composition of these wasps could lead to the extraction and use of their venom (i.e. zombie juice) for medical purposes in humans.  Mmmm, zombie juice.

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~ by Wil Finley on January 16, 2010.

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