News

Come Join Our Research Team!

We have a fully-funded PhD position available in our lab. Interested? find out what project you would be working on and how you can apply here.

NSF CAREER

Last Friday, we celebrated that we landed an NSF CAREER award! This award will fund our lab for the next five years to investigate the molecular aspects of behavioral manipulation in ants by Ophiocordyceps. More information on this project can be found on the NSF website. So, keep an eye out if you are interested in joining our lab. We will be advertising a PhD position soon!

Orlando Science Center Spooky Science Month

The lab is setting up an exhibit with the Orlando Science Center this October to share zombie ant info with guests. Visitors can see specimens of zombie ant cadavers, snap their own microscope pictures, see our ants working in a foraging arena, learn about The Zombie Ant Foray project on iNaturalist, and earn their zombie-hunter stickers by searching a model tree with real cadavers hidden in it. We’ll be there October 13th 20th and 30th for the 2019 Halloween party!

 

Nerd Nite Orlando

Grad student Thienthanh spoke at Nerd Nite in a local Orlando bar to give her audience a quick rundown on courtship behaviors in the animal world, with her talk – Wild Love: Strange Mating Strategies in the Animal Kingdom. From gift-giving spiders to body-fusing anglerfish, she highlighted the complicated and weird ways animals find their mates.

 

Mycological Society of America Conference

At the 2019 MSA conference in Minneapolis, MN, Charissa joined a lineup of speakers on host-manipulating fungi, and grad student Ian presented a poster. It was a great conference full of interesting systems, a big animal pathogen section, and a rowdy auction of fungal kitsch and memorabilia. We are looking forward to the next MSA conference, which will be held in Gainsville, FL.

 

Graduate Research Forum at UCF

de Bekker lab grads, Biplabendu, Ian, and Thienthanh put up posters at the UCF Graduate Research Forum. Elbow to elbow with grads from departments all over campus, they got to share their current research with a wide variety of guests and participants. There were even poster prizes for the presenters, of which Ian was one of the recipients.

 

Showcase for Undergraduate Research Excellence at UCF (SURE)

de Bekker lab undergrads, Brianna and Sara, presented posters at the UCF Showcase for Undergraduate REsearch Excellence. Undergraduate researchers from all departments across campus were there to present their research and compete for the Best Poster Awards. Brianna presented her Summer research at NC State with Dr. Bonnie Blaimer. Sara presented the current state of her longitudinal field study, investigating zombie ant graveyards here in Central Florida. Sara was even one of the lucky Poster Award Winners! Congratulations to both on a job well done!

Southeastern Society of Parasitologists Meeting

Grads Ian and Thienthanh attended this regional parasitology meeting in Athens, GA. Ian gave his first research talk at a conference, and both he and Thienthanh had a chance to meet lots of classical parasitologists working on worms and more. Again, here, Ian impressed the audience with his research and went home with the prize for best graduate student presentation.

Genetics Society of America – 30th Fungal Genetics Conference

Charissa gave a talk and grad student Ian presented a poster at the 2019 GSA Fungal meeting in Asilomar, CA. Lots of cutting edge research and ocean breezes! Ian even won the Best Poster Award in the category Pathogenic and Mutualistic Interactions! Congratulations Ian!

 

New Publication: Ophiocordyceps-ant interactions as an integrative model to understand the molecular basis of parasitic behavioral manipulation.

Charissa offers an opinion piece on current hypotheses and the state of the field in Ophiocordyceps and behavior manipulation by parasites.

 

New Publication: The evolutionary ecology of circadian rhythms in infection.

In this perspective, how circadian rhythm influences host and parasite biology are discussed – and, if behavior manipulating parasites could leverage clock pathways and behaviors to their own ends.

 

New Publication: Do zombie ant fungi turn their hosts into light seekers?

A longitudinal field survey in the Amazonian rainforest in Brazil, in collaboration with our colleagues there, point to light as a major cue underlying the progression of manipulation in ants. This study, led by Master student Fernando Andriolli and Professor Fabricio Baccaro, was published in the journal Behavioral Ecology

Best Paper of 2018 – Myrmecological News

Myrmecological News awarded our review “The ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) and their parasites: effects of parasitic manipulations and host responses on ant behavioral ecology” as the best paper published by the journal in 2018. We are so honored! There is also a blog post about this paper with some captivating pictures and videos.

New open access publication in Myrmecological News

In this review we discuss the current literature on parasites of ants and their impacts on individual, caste, and colony behavior. The review also points out the knowledge gaps that are waiting to be filled and provides suggestions for how to start filling those gaps.

Ants of the Southwest

Grad student Biplabendu has attended the 10-day workshop “Ants of the Southwest” this Summer at the Southwestern Research Station in Portal, Arizona to learn more about conducting field studies to understand the behavior and ecology of ants.

Thienthanh and Ian participate in BIOTEC outreach event

This Summer, lab grads Thienthanh and Ian have been leading small groups of local high school students for BIOTEC, a week-long biology research experience at UCF. Their students came in for full days of learning and laboratory work. Together, they tested the maze solving abilities and response to environmental cues of slime molds. Students also attempted to detect “zombie ant fungus” infections in ants by extracting DNA and using PCR to amplify a pathogen-specific sequence in the genome.

Faculty Family Fun Day

Yearly, the Faculty Family Fun Day is organized in UCF’s Arboretum. Here, UCF’s Faculty can visit with their family and friends for a Sunday filled with fun activities. This year, there was the chance to participate in oyster reef yoga, get your face painted, hold and admire bugs, snakes and frogs, participate in physics experiments, and much more. Our lab participated as well so UCF’s faculty and their kids could get an up close encounter with our ants! We had a blast and hope to be part of this event next year.

New publication: Daily rhythms in Ophiocordyceps

In our newest publication, published in PLOS ONE, we show that the zombie ant fungus Ophiocordyceps kimflemingiae has a functional biological clock and that this results in the oscillation of a whole suite of genes. Interestingly, certain genes are mainly expressed during the daytime, while others are active during the nighttime.

UCF’s College of Science News wrote a short piece about it. This work was also mentioned by Gizmodo and C-Net.com, which covered the latest publication in PNAS from our colleagues from the Hughes Lab at Penn State.

STEM Day at UCF

Our lab hosted about 50 visiting middle school students for STEM Day to learn about behavior-manipulating parasites and get their hands on some zombie ants. We got a great crowd of excited students (and a few grossed-out ones) that were full of questions and ideas as they took a peek at our healthy ant colony, studied zombified ant and fungal samples under a microscope, or searched for cadavers still clinging to their plants in our various displays.

New publication: 

 

First ant collection in the books!

This week, we went on our first ant collection trips here in Central Florida. Being interested in parasitic manipulation of animal behavior, we mainly study the local Carpenter ants and how they get affected by a fungal parasite that turns them into so-called zombies. The fungus (Ophiocordyceps camponoti-floridani) slowly hijacks the behavioral program of the ant host (Camponotus floridanus) and makes her leave the nest to climb up the vegetation where she latches on in a final death-grip. Using a combination of genetics, genomics, behavioral ecology and neurobiology we want to find out how the fungal parasite is able to manipulate the ant’s brain. In order to study this in the lab, we needed to collect both the live ants and fungus-infected ants. A few long days in the hot Florida sun and many mosquito bites later, we have collected enough to start the Fall semester with a bang.

Thienthanh and Biplabendu collecting an ant colony Carpenter ants in their new home Biplabendu and Ian sorting ants from dirt Thienthanh shaking ants out of a decomposing log zombie ant through a hand lens Ian excavating a decomposing log

Microbe Post: The fungus that makes ‘zombie ants’ could use biological clocks to control their minds

In April, Charissa presented some of our work at the Microbiology Society conference in Edinburgh, UK. Afterwards, she had a chat with Anand Jagatia, the writer of the Society’s blog “Microbepost”. Here is what they talked about.

Waves of Wonder Night at Lake Sybelia Elementary PTA

Charissa had the honor to attend the science fair at the local Elementary PTA Lake Sybelia. The school’s hallways were packed with young scientists presenting their projects with a lot of enthusiasm! You can find out more about this event and the scientist’s projects here.

Master’s and PhD student positions available for Fall 2017

Are you interested in fungi, ant behavior, and parasitic manipulators? Would you like to do research in an interdisciplinary environment? Consider joining our team! De Bekker Lab is now recruiting for Fall 2017. For more details click here.

“The Story of Zombie Ants” part of the Distinguished Speaker Series Program

Live in the Orlando area and want to learn more about various topics of exciting research? The College of Sciences invites you to join for an evening of food, drink and intellectual stimulation by organizing the Distinguished Speaker Series Program. Topics range from computational sciences to social – and natural sciences. As part of this year’s program you can learn about parasites that manipulate the behavior of their hosts and turn them into so-called zombies. Interested? Have a look here and RSVP. Hope to see you there!

Spring Semester 2017: New parasitic behavioral manipulation lab joining the Biology Department at UCF!

Super excited to announce that soon our research will be resumed at The University of Central Florida! This vibrant university is located in Orlando, FL and has a very diverse Biology Department. Moreover, our study system, the “zombie ants”, are part of the local ecosystem creating a plethora of research and teaching opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students! Official start date: January 2017.