Smart parasites

Last week Fox's hit edge-of-real-science show Fringe featured a virus that was able to manipulate its host's behavior to ensure it's own survival and dispersal among other individuals. For example, the virus was able to realize when it was being contained and could "think" it's way out of the quarantine by directing it's host to jump out of a window or kill other individuals in an attempt to escape into the outside world. This seemed a little far-fetched at the time, but today I discovered that it really isn't all that far from the truth....

Robert Sapolsky, a professor and biological researcher from Stanford University, has studied many different aspects of neuroscience and the body's response to stress for the past 25 years or so and in this interview goes in to detail about real life parasites that are capable of controlling their host's behavior to a remarkable degree. Maybe they can't make anyone jump off tall buildings but Toxoplasma, for example, which found only n the gut of a cat and in their feces is able to cause rats to suddenly not only ignore their innate fear of the smell of a cat but to actually be attracted to it. Quite an interesting interview. Even though it is a little long, it is worth setting aside 30 min of your day to listen to this guy talk.

As a side note, I saw him speak about "why zebras don't get ulcers" when he came to Lafayette a few years ago. He is an amazing and entertaining public speaker and really seems to do research for the love of discovering new and cool things. In his own words: "I love science, and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awed by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it."

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