Published recently in the journal Current Biology, research from a study conducted by the RIKEN Center for Biosystems Dynamic Research has revealed that parasites likely manipulate the behavior of their host organisms using horizontal gene transfer.
In general, many parasites control their hosts to ensure the survival and reproduction of their species. One example of such a parasitic species is the horsehair worm, born in water but migrating to dry land using aquatic insects. After being eaten by a mantis (terrestrial insect), the worm grows within the host, beginning to manipulate its behavior. Once fully matured, the horsehair worm prompts the insect host to jump into the water and drown to its death, allowing the parasite to complete its life cycle and reproduce.
Interestingly, previous studies have indicated that the horsehair worm likely manipulates the host’s biological pathways to increase movement towards the light (and approach water) by mimicking molecules found in the hosts’ central nervous system. To better understand how they developed such a mimicry mechanism, researchers analyzed the whole-body gene expression in a Chordodes horsehair worm before, during, and after host manipulation. From this study, researchers found over 3,000 genes that were expressed more during manipulation and 1,500 that were expressed less. In contrast, gene expression in the mantis brain did not change whatsoever, indicating that the parasites were producing proteins that would manipulate the host nervous system. After further analysis, interestingly, it was found that over 1,400 hairworm genes that matched those found in their mantis hosts were absent in species with different hosts. From these findings, researchers concluded that the identified mimicry genes (linked with neuromodulation, light attraction, and circadian rhythms) were likely the results of multiple horizontal gene-transfer events from various mantis species during the evolution of horsehair worm species.
Considering that horizontal gene transfer is far more common in prokaryotes, it was rather interesting to see an application of this phenomenon in eukaryotic species. This was especially the case since it is a primary way through which bacteria evolve antibiotic resistance. In that sense, horsehair worms would likely make ideal model organisms to study the mechanism by which horizontal gene transfer occurs and allows molecular mimicry, advancing current scientific understanding of evolutionary adaptation.