Friday, November 7, 2014

Microscopic Invaders & Real Zombification

Which one is the fungus?
Perhaps you've heard of zombie ants.

A zombie ant is an ant that has been taken over by a specific kind of fungus found mostly in the tropics: Ophiocordyceps unilaterus.

The spores of the fungi attach to the outer shell of the ant, and soon break through its exoskeleton and begin to grow inside the unfortunate insect.

That would be plenty bad enough (for the ant anyway), but it gets much, much worse.

The cordyceps fungus has evolved to have more than a passing acquaintance with the ant's brain, such as it is, and quickly persuades the ant to leave its home in the trees for a moister, warmer locale on the forest floor.

There, the ant, now controlled by the fungus, attaches itself to the underside of a leaf, where it soon dies.

In the final phase, fungal hyphae (filaments) sprout from the dead ant's head and release spores, which float about the forest looking for another ant to stick to and start the cycle all over again.

Evidence of this kind of ant-parasitism has been found on leaves that are 48 million years old.

So this kind of thing has been going on for awhile.

Mice Who Love Cats

I know that right about now you are thinking, okay Pam, that's pretty weird but so what? What do zombie mice and Amazon fungi have to do with aliens?

I promise I will get to that, seriously.

Stay with me.

Research into a micro-organism that lives in cat feces called toxoplasmosis gondii recently has shown that when mice are infected with this teeny critter they lose their fear of cats.

Toxoplasmosis gondii causes an infection in pregnant women that can result in fetal abnormalities. In people who are not pregnant it is barely noticeable.

Not too long ago the only interesting thing about toxoplasma was that their existence meant that Dad had to clean the cat box for nine months.

However it turns out that toxoplasma have a lot in common with the fungus that zombifies tropical ants.

They are very gifted germs.

Toxoplasma actually change the behavior of animals who inhale their spores. In the case of mice, the loss of fear of cats benefits the t. gondii organism directly by making it much more likely than an uninfected cat will eat a friendly infected mouse and then spread the organism around some more by pooping.

Even more amazing (or troubling, however you choose to look at it), people who carry the t.gondii organism in their bodies, even when it is dormant and causing no illness, become measurably more outgoing and sociable--just like the mice.

Once the t. gondii organism is in a human body in a dormant state, it can't be removed, so the behavior changes are permanent; a finding borne out by the observation that mice who were cured of their toxoplasma infection retained their habits of sauntering up to cats to say hello unafraid of the consequences.

Evidence is also accumulating that dormant toxoplasma may be a partial cause of certain kinds of schizophrenia, opening up a new line of research in the cause and treatment of mental illness.

Researchers who discovered the capacity of toxoplasma to change human behavior decided to see if the same held true for other illness-causing micro-organisms.

Because the researchers did not want to infect volunteers with active sickness, they decided instead to follow a random group of people who had just gotten a flu shot, reasoning that the flu virus in the shot, while not strong enough to make them sick, would still be alive in the subjects' bodies for at least several days while they developed immunity to it.

They found that for the the week following an ordinary flu shot, even relative introverts got the sudden urge to shop, go to the movies, and in short hang out with large groups of people in any way that they could. All were completely unaware that their behavior had changed.

Get Your Flu Shot

I'm not saying that flu shots are bad.

I had some kind of pernicious flu in 1992 that was so bad it took me a month to recover completely. I endured a fever of 103 or more for six days and it hurt to blink let alone move.  By day six I thought, this is it, I'm going to die, but I didn't. The fever broke the next day.

That experience taught me that a small virus can do big damage even to a healthy body, behavior change or no behavior change, so I always get a flu shot.

Crap. I forgot to get my flu shot.
What has been bothering me for awhile though is how, when people get to talking about aliens, what they are  almost always talking about are humanoid creatures about our size and shape.

Maybe the eyeballs are bigger. Maybe these guys have no genitals. Maybe some of them have scales or are excessively tall and Nordic-looking. But basically, they aren't that different in size or kind than Uncle Fred when he wears his Klingon costume on Halloween.

Why should this be so?

Why wouldn't aliens be so small we wouldn't even see them, or so large they wouldn't fit in any UFO, not even the football field-sized craft of recent sightings?

Life on earth is so incredibly strange that it seems incongruous to me to think that life from elsewhere would be so easy to plug into a 50's B-movie.

Why would we even recognize alien life?

We can't even agree on what life is, right here, right on our very own planet.

What's Wrong With the Human Race?

A popular cable TV show talks about a time in ancient history when human beings were bred with aliens and set on an accelerated developmental trajectory that has resulted in rapid technological advancement and population growth.

This theory is appealing to lots of people, because it seems to illuminate many perplexing mysteries about the human race.

For instance, why did humans get along as hunter-gatherers for so many millions of years with so little change and so few problems, and then suddenly decide, for no apparent good reason, to grow wheat, build pyramids, submit to kings, wage wars, and get smarter and smarter and smarter (at least in their own imaginations)?

What the hell was that all about?

Must be aliens, right?

Well, maybe.

But maybe the aliens in question are more the size of a cordyceps fungus or a toxoplasma than a tall Nordic looking guy in a tunic or a lizard with huge eyes.
Take us to yer leader!

Some scientists believe that without fungus, life on earth would never have started at all. That one, tiny spore could easily have come here on a meteorite and seeded Earth in the same way the tiny jungle spores stick to jungle ants.

The theory is more plausible than you might think. Different types of fungus are responsible for creating the kind of soil that can accommodate trees, and fungi can even coordinate the growth and behavior of forests.

Fungi are amazing creatures, if they are in fact creatures.

Neither plant nor animal but something else entirely, the activity of fungi is intertwined with the development of life on this planet going as far back as anyone has so far been able to discover.

And this, you see, is what gets me kicked out of UFO groups wherever they spawn.