Research in 60 Seconds: How Fungus Turns Ants Into Zombies

Whether it’s solving the world’s biggest problems or investigating the potential of novel discoveries, researchers at UCF are on the edge scientific breakthroughs that aim to make an impact. Through the Research in 60 Seconds series, student and faculty researchers condense their complex studies into bite-sized summaries so you can know how and why Knights plan to improve our world.

Name: Ian Will ’22

Position at UCF: Department of Biology postdoctoral researcher who earned his doctorate in conservation biology at UCF.

Why are you interested in this research?
I am generally interested in how the close interactions between different species operate in symbioses such as mutualism and parasitism. I find behavior-manipulating parasites, such as the one we study, to be especially fascinating. Better understanding how this fungal parasite can modify insect behavior offers a unique perspective not only on parasitism, but also the molecular basis of animal behavior and identification of novel bioactive compounds affecting animal neurobiology and physiology.

How did you get started in research at UCF?
During my studies in Germany, I happened to connect with my advisor during a research rotation while she was a postdoctoral fellow. By the time she was starting her first professorship here at UCF, I was finishing my master’s – the timing really worked out for us.

Who is your mentor?
My mentor, Charissa de Bekker, was both my Ph.D. mentor and continues to be my postdoc advisor as we finalize a few projects in the lab and she transitions to a new position at Utrecht University.

How does UCF empower you to do your research?
UCF is in a prime geographical location to find both our study organisms, the ants and the fungus. With field sites within half an hour, we can combine research both in the wild and in the laboratory.

Why is this research important?
Parasitism is one of the most common lifestyles on Earth. A deep understanding of the interactions between host and parasite are critical to understanding nature. And, in the past years, more and more cases of parasites modifying their hosts, or prompting specific host responses, have been documented. To borrow a term coined by others in the field, these parasites act as “naturally evolved neurobiologists,” and we have a lot to learn from them about the fundamentals of animal behavior and disease.

Nicole Dudenhoefer ’17 | Video by UCF Social
Tags: College of Sciences Department of Biology Research in 60 Seconds

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