Scientists Uncover How Hairworms Manipulate Mantis Host’s Brain

In a battle for control between the unassuming worm and the mighty mantis, who would emerge victorious may surprise you. Believe it or not, horsehair worms possess the ability to manipulate the brains of their hosts, driving them to water where they eventually meet their fate by drowning. While scientists have scrutinized these mind-controlling parasites for years, it was only recently discovered that they possess a remarkable talent for stealing DNA in order to manipulate their hosts.

On the outside, these parasitic horsehair worms appear to be simple creatures, but in reality, they are among nature’s most sophisticated body snatchers. They seep into the brains of their hosts and compel them to take their own lives. Though scientists have studied these hairworms and their mind-controlling prowess for years, understanding how they pull off such a feat at the molecular level has remained a scientific enigma until now.

As it turns out, these hairworms have a few tricks up their sleeves. Initially, as larvae, their aim is to get consumed by a tadpole or young mosquito. However, it’s only when the insect is consumed by a larger creature, such as a cricket, millipede, grasshopper, or mantis, that the worm takes over. It saps the nutrients from its host for about three months before compelling them to take their own lives. But what’s truly incredible is the way in which these worms take control of their unsuspecting hosts.

Recent research published in the peer-reviewed journal Current Biology revealed that the worms mimic the chemicals in their host’s body that are similar to neurotransmitters, offering them a means to control their hosts’ brains. Through horizontal gene transfer, the worms are able to produce mind-controlling chemicals by stealing copies of their host’s DNA. The study examined the genetic code of the horsehair worm species Chordodes fukuii and its favorite host, mantises, and found that when the worm compels the mantis to commit suicide, there are extensive changes in the worm’s genome.

These findings have led scientists to separate three potential mechanisms that the hairworms may use to manipulate their hosts, including through neurotransmitters like dopamine. Additionally, the worms activate genes that encourage the mantis to move toward light with a certain polarization, as well as changes linked to the mantis’ circadian rhythm, making them more active during certain times of the day when it’s easier to find light reflecting off water.

While it’s fascinating to learn about the capabilities of horsehair worms, there’s no reason to be concerned about human involvement. These worms can only control mantises and are unable to manipulate other insects or mammals. While the thought of a worm manipulating its host’s brain may be unsettling, it’s a reminder of the incredible diversity and complexity of nature.

With this information in mind, who would you root for in the fight between a worm and a mantis? The answer might surprise you!


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