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Bekker, Charissa de; Ohm, Robin A.; Loreto, Raquel G.; Sebastian, Aswathy; Albert, Istvan; Merrow, Martha; Brachmann, Andreas; Hughes, David P.: Gene expression during zombie ant biting behavior reflects the complexity underlying fungal parasitic behavioral manipulation. In: BMC Genomics 2015, 16:620




Background Adaptive manipulation of animal behavior by parasites functions to increase parasite transmission through changes in host behavior. These changes can range from slight alterations in existing behaviors of the host to the establishment of wholly novel behaviors. The biting behavior observed in Carpenter ants infected by the specialized fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. is an example of the latter. Though parasitic manipulation of host behavior is generally assumed to be due to the parasite’s gene expression, few studies have set out to test this. Results We experimentally infected Carpenter ants to collect tissue from both parasite and host during the time period when manipulated biting behavior is experienced. Upon observation of synchronized biting, samples were collected and subjected to mixed RNA-Seq analysis. We also sequenced and annotated the O. unilateralis s.l. genome as a reference for the fungal sequencing reads. Conclusions Our mixed transcriptomics approach, together with a comparative genomics study, shows that the majority of the fungal genes that are up-regulated during manipulated biting behavior are unique to the O. unilateralis s.l. genome. This study furthermore reveals that the fungal parasite might be regulating immune- and neuronal stress responses in the host during manipulated biting, as well as impairing its chemosensory communication and causing apoptosis. Moreover, we found genes up-regulated during manipulation that putatively encode for proteins with reported effects on behavioral outputs, proteins involved in various neuropathologies and proteins involved in the biosynthesis of secondary metabolites such as alkaloids.