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Stolen genes allow parasitic control of behavior


A team led by Tappei Mishina at the RIKEN Center for Biosystems Dynamics Research (BDR) has discovered that parasites manipulate their hosts using stolen genes that they likely acquired through a phenomenon called horizontal gene transfer. The study was published in the scientific journal Current Biology on October 19.

Many parasites manipulate the behavior of their hosts to ensure their survival and ability to reproduce. Horsehair worms display one of the most sophisticated examples of this type of control of behavior. Horsehair worms are born in water and use aquatic insects like mayflies to hitchhike to dry land, where they sit tight until they are eaten by terrestrial insects such as crickets or mantises. Once a horsehair worm reaches these hosts, it starts growing and manipulates the host’s behavior. The matured horsehair worm finally induces the host to jump into water, often to the host’s ultimate demise, so it can complete its life mission and reproduce.

Previous studies have suggested that horsehair worms hijack their hosts’ biological pathways and increase movement towards light, which leads the hosts to approach water. Scientists believe this is accomplished with molecules that mimic those of the hosts’ central nervous systems, but exactly how these parasites developed this kind of molecular mimicry has remained a mystery.

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