Entomophthora muscae is a fungus that effectively turns house flies into zombies. When their spores land on a fly’s body, the fungus burrows inside and quickly takes over the fly’s cardiovascular system and brain, which allows it to control the fly’s movements. The fungus eats the fly from the inside out for sustenance, and shortly before the fly’s death, it navigates the body to a high point where it can more easily spread spores to the next target. As if any of this isn’t unusual enough, the next steps are what grabbed the focus of a team of European researchers: the fungus creates tubes on the body of the fly that build up pressure and expel spores when another fly comes near. In other words, the fungus launches cannons of spores to spread itself.

A team of researchers from Technical University of Denmark, the University of Copenhagen, and Wageningen University and Research wanted to learn how exactly this cannon works. Their goal was to understand the physics of the spores’ ejection, and how it is possible for the spores to travel quickly and far enough to reach nearby flies. To accomplish this, they built their own version of the cannon out of a rubbery material and varied the pressure, shape, and other parameters to see how it would affect the flight trajectories.

Ultimately, they were able to determine the physical parameters that allow the real-life fungus cannons manage to get spores to the circulating flies. In particular, they found that the optimal spore size to travel as far and quickly as possible is similar to the actual size of the fungal spores. In addition to shedding insight into the spread of zombie fungi, these findings could help scientists one day build their own mini-cannons to target flies, such as to kill those carrying diseases.

Managing Correspondent: Isabella Grabski

Press Articles:

Researchers build a biomimetic ‘soft cannon’ to understand how fungal spores are dispersed, Phys.org

Scientists built a zombie fungus cannon, Scimex.org

This fungus fires artillery from the backs of zombie flies. New York Times

Original Scientific Article:

Fungal artillery of zombie flies: infectious spore dispersal using a soft water cannon, Journal of the Royal Society Interface

Image Credit:

“fly and fungus” by zen is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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