Bikers, car accidents, anti-authoritarianism and cat shit

Paul Raven @ 10-02-2011

This post at NextNature rounds up some of the latest reseach into my all-time favourite parasitic lifeform, Toxoplasma gondii. Toxoplasma, so the theories go, has an effect on the psychology of its hosts; as part of its original lifescycle, it makes rats less afraid of cats, thus increasing its chance of finding a new feline host to colonise. But it gets into us people-monkeys, too, where the effects appear to be a mild version of B-movie bodysnatching:

The effects are sex-dependent. Toxo makes men more distrustful of authority, more jealous, and more likely to engage in rule-bending and breaking. Male motorcyclists are disproportionately affected.  In a perverse twist, motorists of either sex who have T. gondii are three to four times more likely to die in car accidents, either from their increased disregard of the speed limit, or because the parasite wears down reaction times. There’s even shaky evidence that T. gondii correlates with success on the football field, at least in predicting the winners of the World Cup.

Women get the sweeter half of the brain parasite. Women harboring T. Gondii are considered by others to be more cheerful, warmhearted, and sexually attractive. They are also outspend their uninfected sisters when it comes to clothing. In some ways Toxo is the microbial mascot of romantic comedies, turning women into spendy social butterflies, and their dates into over-masculine dolts. But take care: Before you go out to find some infectious cat feces to gussy up your social appeal, it’s important to point out that the personality changes are statistically significant but still only minor. Researchers still disagree as to how and even if Toxo alters behavior. It could be that the personality predisposes people to the infection, and not the other way around.

This is the more cautious end of Toxoplasma theory, especially when compared to the notion that it might be the root cause of schizophrenia (which has also been blamed on retroviral gene-jacking). I still find it to be a massive (if rather creepy subspecies of) sensawunda kick; unnoticed civilisational symbiosis FTW!

Bonus points to NextNature for including two amazing images in that post: the first is the well-known wall-of-death-motorcyclist-with-lion-in-sidecar shot, which is one of my all-time favourite images of all time; the second is of two scientists watching a woman with a towel tied across her face shoving her head into a well-used kitty litter-tray. SRSLY.


Paranormal biofantasy: zombie ants, hungry vampires

Paul Raven @ 18-08-2010

I pretty much never talk about the “paranormal romance” or “urban fantasy” tropes here at Futurismic, partly because they rarely say much about the real future in anything more than very vague metaphorical terms (the ubiquity of the shambling undead as a symbol of the subliminal horror of a greying society where the elderly prey on the financial vitality of the young and healthy?), and partly because talking about vampires and zombies and werewolves in the genre blogosphere is a bit like whispering your shopping list in the mosh-pit at a Slayer gig.

But put the roots of those tropes into some sort of scientific context, and I’m all over it like the tribal tattoo on an ass-kicking heroine’s lower back. So, ladies and gentlemen: zombie ants. Zombie ants that have been mind-controlled by a parasitic fungus for nearly fifty million years.

The finding shows that parasitic fungi evolved the ability to control the creatures they infect in the distant past, even before the rise of the Himalayas.

The fungus, which is alive and well in forests today, latches on to carpenter ants as they cross the forest floor before returning to their nests high in the canopy.

The fungus grows inside the ants and releases chemicals that affect their behaviour. Some ants leave the colony and wander off to find fresh leaves on their own, while others fall from their tree-top havens on to leaves nearer the ground.

The final stage of the parasitic death sentence is the most macabre. In their last hours, infected ants move towards the underside of the leaf they are on and lock their mandibles in a “death grip” around the central vein, immobilising themselves and locking the fungus in position.

OK, so the fate of rainforest bugs and freaky fungi may not seem all that existentially terrifying, but symbiosis occurs elsewhere – remember toxoplasma, the cat parasite that may (be sure to emphasise the ‘may’) be responsible for human neurotic behaviour patterns?

And in deepest darkest Peru, no one is finding vampirism sparkly and smoulderingly attractive (yet strangely supportive of Christianised notions of sexual abstinence and submissive femininity): swarms of vampire bats are on the rampage, and have attacked more than 500 people. The only immortality that bite is going to give you is a third page sidebar in your local paper as the first person to die of rabies in living memory.


Toxoplasma Needs More Boys

Paul Raven @ 12-10-2006

Readers with long memories may recall us mentioning research on the cat parasite toxoplasma that suggested it could be influencing human behaviour. You probably dismissed it as a classic silly-season science story straight out of the pulp age of science fiction, too. Well, don’t rest too comfortably, for new research indicates that toxoplasma may also be influencing the gender of human children! Who knows how else this insidious parasite may be affecting civilisation as we know it?