I read a story a while ago about a disease in ants nicknamed the zombie-ant fungus. Apart from having the coolest moniker of any fungus I’ve ever read about, the parasitic Ophiocordyceps fungus only gets cooler when you learn that it takes over the ant’s brain and eventually ruptures a “fruiting body” out of the ant to spread more of its deadly spores.
As a bioanalytical chemist, I build biosensors to detect disease. You didn’t think I researched ants did you? So why talk about zombie-ant fungus? To make a point that biology does it better. Perhaps the most peculiar thing about the zombie-ant fungus—apart from the alien-like organism exploding out of the live ant—is that other ants can somehow tell when their doomed brethren are set on a course to make the perfect ant horror movie. How do they do that? I’m trying to imagine the scenario where you walk into your doctor’s office and she can just tell that you’re infected with a deadly fungus. It’s more likely that you’d be met with a battery of needles, swabs, lab tests, and a bill that will ultimately lead to hypertension. However strange you might find it, you have to admit: biology does it better. The trick is figuring out how to use what’s already available to us.
Lucky for us, there is no zombie fungus running rampant among the human population. But there are other serious diseases that affect our quality of life. The research I do strives to utilize components of biology, just like the ants use, to identify disease states in humans—the end result, however, being effective treatment of the disease and not banishment to the ant graveyard.
Our bodies are full of biology, and if we can find an easy means to probe certain parts of it, we can do a better job diagnosing when we are having health problems. Wouldn’t it be cool if cells glowed green when they were cancerous? With science, they can! All of our cells have tiny molecules that regulate their normal functions (growth, death, food metabolism, etc.). When these molecules misbehave, diseases like cancer can develop. My research uses proteins from sea creatures that can create light—just like fireflies do—to detect these tiny molecules when they start misbehaving.