Discovery may help in war against fire ants

ithout our immune systems protecting us?" he said. "In the case of Strepsitera, it masquerades as the host."

Parasites have many ways to avoid an immune reaction by the host, "but none of them encapsulate themselves into the host tissue" like the Strepsitera.

Johnston said this discovery is an important step to understanding a species that is a parasite of the red imported fire ant.

In most, if not all, infected species, such as crickets, the parasites actually extend the life span of their hosts, Johnston said. But he added researchers don't know if the Strepsiptera extends the life span of the fire ant.

"Do I care? No," Johnston said. "Once they're parasitized, they're sterile anyway...they're out of the picture," he said. "In fact, I'd love for the parasite to extend the life span because those drones are a drain on the colony. If drones, or fire ant males, would stay in the colony and suck up nutrients for another two years, it would be wonderful. It's the same thing with the workers: once they're parasitized, they don't sting, they don't contribute, they just drain the colony."

He and Kathirithamby want to study Strepsiptera further to find out whether half the live young produced are male and the other half female, or whether the young are capable of being either male or female, depending on the host.

Johnston also was excited that, 97 years after the male Strepsiptera was first described by scientists, Kathirithamby recently identified the female alive in crickets in Mexico.

"These are really basic questions that we haven't been able to answer," Johnston said. "We've never had the females alive before, we've always had them caught in alcohol traps. With the discovery of the females and using DNA to match the tiny, free-living adult male with the larvae-like female that never leaves the cricket we can culture the males in ants and females in crickets and study them more."

Culturing, or

Contact: Edith Chenault
Texas A&M University - Agricultural Communications

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