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Researchers Spot And Manipulate Zombie Gene In Caterpillars

| 9 Sep 2011 23:30
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You just know that this is the start of the experiment that winds up causing the zombie caterpillar apocalypse.

Did you know there's actually a virus that controls caterpillars as it kills them? It's true: Out in the wild, there's a baculovirus that controls gypsy moth populations by causing them to spread the infection even as it's liquifying their insides. Not only that, but a group of researchers recently identified the gene in the virus that dictates the insects' actions and figured out how to deactivate it.

Gypsy moth caterpillars spend their nights climbing into trees so they can eat leaves, but they return to forest floors during the day so they can avoid predators that hang out amongst the branches. However, a baculovirus actually causes the little guys to climb up into trees during the daytime, which helps with the virus's reproductive cycle.

Infected caterpillars, meanwhile, are also having their interior bits eaten up by the virus. Once they're up in the treetops, they die and are liquified, thereby dribbling all over the foliage below; any other caterpillars that come into contact with the remains are then infected and the cycle starts all over again.

Entomologist Kelli Hoover theorized that the caterpillars' behavior might've had a genetic connection:

The gene egt codes for an enzyme, EGT, that inactivates the hormone in these caterpillars that triggers molting. Because caterpillars usually descend from the treetops to molt on the ground, the researchers reasoned that the bugs were staying high in the trees to die because EGT was blocking the molting hormone.

Hoover and her team infected a test batch of caterpillars with two versions of the virus: one with the egt gene and one without. While the caterpillars still died gooey deaths, the egt-free ones were sitting on the bottom of their containers. Those infected with unmodified ("wild") versions of the virus were firmly ensconced at the top of their containers.

Now that the researchers have figured out how to tweak the virus, it's only a matter of time before they figure out how to make it bring its victims back from the dead after they've expired. After that, we can all look forward to living through our very own George Romero movie.

... Right?

Source: Science via io9

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