The National Science Foundation has awarded UCF doctoral scholar William Beckerson one of a handful of national Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in Biology.
The $138,000 award is a result of his work on promising research exploring a “mind control” fungus for medical applications to treat neurological disorders.
Beckerson, a molecular geneticist, is investigating Ophiocordyceps, a fungal pathogen that infects carpenter ants in Florida and secretes compounds that manipulate their behaviors. UCF Assistant Professor Charissa de Bekker has been studying the zombie ants — nicknamed because of the erratic behavior that the fungus generates — for years. Beckerson’s work looks at the potential application of the fungus in medicine. He is a UCF Preeminent Postdoctoral Scholar.
“From these types of fungi, we hope to be able to create medicines that can help people and what we’re hoping to find is some chemicals we can use for behavioral purposes,” says Beckerson.
The fungal pathogen secretes compounds in response to very particular environmental cues (temperature, humidity, sunlight) that affect the nervous system of their carpenter ant hosts. These toxins force the ant to behave abnormally, including actions such as leaving its nest, excessive twitching and weird “zombie-like” walking patterns. How the chemicals and proteins used by Ophiocordyceps work remains a subject of study, as well the identity of neurological targets in the hosts.
Beckerson says that the research will not only increase the understanding about how pathogens evolve to affect animal hosts, but may also lead to the discovery of new pharmaceutical compounds and “teach us more about how the nervous system operates at a fundamental level.”
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, fungi in general make various compounds that have been repurposed for drugs including antibiotics, blood thinners, antifungals and blood pressure medications. Traditional medicine in China deploys Ophiocordyceps for treating conditions including bronchial diseases, diabetes and jaundice.
“The fungus has a really intense host specificity, so there’s no concern about a zombie host-shift. In other words, it won’t turn you into a zombie,” Beckerson says.
Besides researching zombie ants, Beckerson also performs pedagogical research to identify best practices for teaching, both at the community and college levels. Part of his teaching includes students in the K-12 age group in who have “have a thousand questions” on how these zombie ants came to be.
“It’s not just little kids interested in learning about zombie ants. Half the time the parents are even more interested in learning about them than the kids are,” Beckerson says.
If you would like to learn more about Beckerson’s research, check out his community science project “The Zombie Fungus Foray” at www.theZombieFungusForay.com