Charissa de Bekker, Ph.D.

Distinguished Speaker Series:
Charissa de Bekker, Ph.D.

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Charissa de BekkerThe Story of Zombie Ants: How Can a Fungal Parasite Control Animal Behavior?

Dr. Charissa de Bekker
Assistant Professor of Biology University of Central Florida Orlando, FL

Wednesday, April 26, 2017 at 6:00 p.m.
Tuscawilla Country Club
1500 Winter Springs Blvd.,
Winter Springs, FL 32708

Parasites are all around us. Some of those parasites co-evolved closely together with their hosts and have come up with intricate ways to exploit that host for their own benefit. In nature, we can find many examples of parasites that have evolved the ability to manipulate host behavior. These manipulations range from slightly altered existing behaviors to the establishment of completely novel ones that are not part of the regular repertoire.

One of the most dramatic examples of the latter is that of the zombie ants. Here, a fungal parasite takes complete control of the behavior of a Carpenter ant, guiding it up the vegetation where it latches on in a final death grip. We use this parasite-host interaction as a model system to ask the question how a microbe can control an animal’s brain to change the behavioral output so precisely. Something, most neurologists will even agree on, is extremely difficult to do. Our research will therefore not only inform us about the mechanisms that these parasites use to manipulate their hosts, but also ultimately give an important insight into the regulation of behavior in general.

During my talk, I will guide you through the first steps that we have taken in this direction. This being an interdisciplinary approach my story will therefore range from behavioral ecology, to molecular biology, to chronobiology and the insights we are getting from various “omics” datasets.

About Dr. Charissa de Bekker:

Dr. de Bekker received her Ph.D. in biology from the Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Prior to her position at UCF, she was a Marie Curie Research Fellow at Penn State and an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, Germany.