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Parasite Parade
June 4, 2010 1:12 PM   Subscribe

The parasite Toxoplasma makes rats lust for cat pee and people drive motorbikes. Other behaviour-modifying parasites include Cordyceps (YouTube) and Sacculina. (Warning: Icky.)
posted by Zarkonnen (33 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
If you only hear one klezmer/cabaret tune about Toxoplasma, make it Daniel Kahn's.
posted by griphus at 1:18 PM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Cats are teh 3vil. Well now there's proof.
posted by wuwei at 1:19 PM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh! There's also a Radiolab episode about these guys.
posted by griphus at 1:22 PM on June 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


That explains ratbikes, anyway: Microorganism-induced lust.
posted by ardgedee at 1:26 PM on June 4, 2010


It's stuff like this that makes me hate nature. You go enjoy the sunset hippie. I'll be inside with the air conditioning on and a lot of caustic cleaning fluids.
posted by dortmunder at 1:30 PM on June 4, 2010 [10 favorites]


Dr.Takano says this is the origin of all religion.
posted by charred husk at 1:33 PM on June 4, 2010


Cordyceps, previously.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:45 PM on June 4, 2010


Previously on the blue.
posted by lumensimus at 1:45 PM on June 4, 2010


I recommend you read Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer. It is a great book about how parasites impact their hosts. He also writes The Loom, a blog hosted by Discover Magazine. I really enjoyed how he presented the topic of parasites as well as his writing style.

It is because of this book that I was able to correctly guess that my cat had tapeworms and ear mites. We had just adopted her and she proceeded to explode from both ends in the car ride home. (Turns out this response was just due to how stressed she gets in the car.) However, while cleaning up, I spotted white, wiggling things that looked like little bits of rice. We collected some and took her straight to the vet who confirmed that they were tapeworm segments.

Also the Parasite of the Day blog may be of interest. Some of the pictures may induce a bit of the squeamish. However, it is still very interesting.
posted by onhazier at 1:46 PM on June 4, 2010 [6 favorites]


We are not alone...
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:46 PM on June 4, 2010


Toxoplasma doesn't 'know' anything, Mr. Presenter-man. It doesn't know how to make rodents get sexually excited about cat piss or to induce risky behavior in humans. That, sir, requires a nervous system of some kind with at the least limited cognitive functions. I know this sounds nick-picky, but intent (or the lack of) on the part of an organism drastically changes how you have to think about their actions. Are they solely a genetic machine or do they have cognition overlaid a genetic imperative?
posted by ZaneJ. at 2:04 PM on June 4, 2010


Toxoplasma doesn't 'know' anything, of course. I think that specific type of anthropomorphization is a part of academic jargon. I talk about the various components of the application I develop 'knowing' things, and 'wanting' things, and so on; I don't think he's actually meaning 'want' and 'know' in any cognitive way.

Then again, it could be argued that we don't have much in the way of a priori desire either, if we're all parasitized...
posted by Fraxas at 2:11 PM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


See also: Megolaponera Foetens: Stink Ant of the Cameroon of West Central Africa (On exhibit at The Museum Of Jurassic Technology, Culver City, CA)
posted by christopherious at 2:14 PM on June 4, 2010


I'm going to second onhazier and also recommend Parasite Rex, which covers all these parasites and so many, many disturbing and horrible others. Carl Zimmer is a terrific wonderful science journalist. He's the anti-RadioLab.
posted by Auden at 2:40 PM on June 4, 2010


I'm pretty sure there is at least one parasite long known to change behaviour in humans. From my undergrad lectures I'm sure I remember something about a nematode parasite that gives humans the urge to eat soil. I can't remember enough to google it though... I think the name had something to do with pixi, pixa?

Similar to Tox in rats, the tapeworm Schistocephalus solidus grows in fish until it reaches maturity, then alters the fish's reflexes so that the fish no longer dodges when a heron lunges at it. This gets the parasite a free ride into the gut of the heron, where the parasite can meet others of its species and get in on. Nature is downright creepy sometimes.

Fraxas - Toxoplasma doesn't 'know' anything, of course. I think that specific type of anthropomorphization is a part of academic jargon.

Yes, it's something that biologists should be very careful about when talking to the public but it's such a convenient language pattern. This morning I heard an eminent(ish) virologist say that "lentiviruses really don't like repeating DNA sequences"; everyone present knew exactly what he meant, but this was just a much easier way to say it.
posted by metaBugs at 2:55 PM on June 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure there is at least one parasite long known to change behaviour in humans. From my undergrad lectures I'm sure I remember something about a nematode parasite that gives humans the urge to eat soil. I can't remember enough to google it though... I think the name had something to do with pixi, pixa?

Low iron levels can lead to a behavior called pica, which is the eating of non-food items, particularly dirt and clay. Several parasites can cause blood loss through the digestive tract which eventually builds to iron deficiency, initiating the behavior. It's not, however, directly induced by the parasite, though it could presumably facilitate spread by stimulating the consumption of egg-tainted soil.
posted by monocyte at 3:13 PM on June 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


It looks like toxoplasmosis also give you the urge to get a rockin' beard.
posted by dibblda at 3:24 PM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Which parasite is making me post stupid comments? WHAT DO YOU WANT???
posted by orme at 3:31 PM on June 4, 2010


Cats are teh 3vil.

I've had cats all my life, and also ride motorcycles. All I can say is thanks for teh 3vil, it's been great.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 3:39 PM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


T. gondii infection "may contribute to some cases of schizophrenia", probably through epigenetic mechanisms. Also bipolar disorder, when toxoplasma cysts in the brain make dopamine.

About 11% of Americans are infected, based on the presence of antibodies in the blood, although most of these people are healthy. It's a combination of factors, some genetic and some environmental, that add up to the losing lottery ticket. Luckily, most people do just fine after being infected, because MetaFilter is strongly pro-kitty and I would be tarred and feathered if I badmouthed cats.
posted by Quietgal at 3:58 PM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Just wait til we find out that STDs promote rape and other sexual behaviors that tend to pass them along.
posted by jamjam at 4:06 PM on June 4, 2010


I vaguely remember previous posts on this subject linking toxo with reduced reaction times.

Reduced reaction times might result in more vehicle accidents, especially on motorcycles, which require some pretty quick reactions.

Toxo infection would also, presumably, destroy a professional gamer's career.
posted by enkiwa at 5:03 PM on June 4, 2010


That beard was truly mesmerizing. It kept distracting me from what he was actually saying.
posted by vortex genie 2 at 7:14 PM on June 4, 2010


A woman I know got involved with a parasite about 20 years ago and has never been the same, even though she got rid of him.
posted by Daddy-O at 9:54 PM on June 4, 2010


Cats are evil, motorbikes will kill you. Cats riding motorcycles, though, are maybe the beginning of a really ok kids' book...
Or is it just the parasites making me think that would be a good idea?
posted by From Bklyn at 10:17 PM on June 4, 2010


Toxoplasma doesn't 'know' anything

But people infected with Toxo 'know' they love speeding on their Harley
posted by crayz at 5:12 AM on June 5, 2010


Reduced reaction times might result in more vehicle accidents, especially on motorcycles, which require some pretty quick reactions.

Reduced, or increased?

I agree, though, that you'd have to survey live motorcyclists as well as dead ones to determine whether toxoplasma causes more exposure to danger, or simply worse responses when exposed to normal dangers.
posted by Mike1024 at 6:42 AM on June 5, 2010


It doesn't want you to *drive* a motorcycle it wants you to *crash* your motorcycle and get mashed into bits...so the cats can eat you.
posted by tastydonuts at 11:33 AM on June 5, 2010


This was in The Economist a couple of days ago.
posted by keijo at 12:03 PM on June 5, 2010


Carl Zimmer is a terrific wonderful science journalist. He's the anti-RadioLab.

Funny you should put it like that, because Zimmer has been a guest on Radio Lab several times.

And what's wrong with Radio Lab? Yes, it's pop-science, but I haven't heard an episode yet that's grossly inaccurate.
posted by chrisamiller at 2:13 PM on June 5, 2010


I suffer from acute, chronic anxiety, and I have recently begun to wonder if an infection of Toxoplasmosis might be able to reduce my stress response. Does anyone know if:

1. There is a Toxo test to see if i'm already infected?

2. There is a realitively safe way to infect myself?

3. There is a way to test for predispositions toward schizophrenia in myself so that I know not to possibly induce full-blown schitz in myself?
posted by HalfJack at 4:53 PM on June 5, 2010


That would be a pretty radical experiment. Have you tried any of the SRI anti-depressants? That's a little more reversible.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 5:03 PM on June 5, 2010


Yeah, of course. I also know (my mom is a psycho/neuro/endocrinologist) that most SSRI's rely on the placebo effect to work. So, they don't work on me, and never really have, unfortunately. If there was a really effective way to treat depression that wasn't more damaging than the depression itself, I wouldn't even consider Toxo as a treatment.
posted by HalfJack at 10:58 PM on June 6, 2010


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