The Wisdom of Parasites


On “the Loom”, Carl Zimmer presents a fascinating story about the Ampulex Compressa, a parasitic wasp who basically performs ‘brain surgery’ on her victim to provide for a food source for her off-spring.

Let’s explore this example of Intelligent Design

Is it specified? Yes, the wasp performs what seems to be ‘brain surgeon’ when carefully injecting a particular part of the brain with toxins.

Is it Complex? Yes, science is so far ignorance about how Ampulex manages to do these

Scientists don’t yet understand how Ampulex manages either of these feats. Part of the reason for their ignorance is the fact that scientists have much left to learn about nervous systems and metabolism. But millions of years of natural selection has allowed Ampulex to reverse engineer its host. We would do well to follow its lead, and gain the wisdom of parasites.

in fact human scientists have been unable to recreate this feat:

The Israeli researchers found that they could also drop oxygen consumption in cockroaches by injecting paralyzing drugs or by removing the neurons that the wasps disable with their sting. But they can manage only a crude imitation; the manipulated cockroaches quickly dehydrated and were dead within six days. The wasp venom somehow puts the roaches into suspended animation while keeping them in good health, even as a wasp larva is devouring it from the inside

Seem the Ampulex makes for a better showcase of intelligent design than the Bacterial Flagella, although if ID activists are to believed, the Intelligent Designer somehow created what would later evolve into the Type III secretory system used by such pest as the bubonic plague. Talking about Divine retribution…

Oh yes the original paper

Gal R, Rosenberg LA, Libersat F. Parasitoid wasp uses a venom cocktail injected into the brain to manipulate the behavior and metabolism of its cockroach prey. Arch Insect Biochem Physiol. 2005 Dec;60(4):198-208. Other relevant papers can also be found at the Libersat’s site


I often wonder if ‘ol GW hasn’t been stung (a few times) by one of these wasps.

It sure seems he lets Karl Rove feed off of him like a maggot quite frequently.

I thought the secretory system evolved INTO the flagellum, not the other way around.

Harq al-Ada Wrote:

I thought the secretory system evolved INTO the flagellum, not the other way around.

Well, there is some uncertainty in this area which is why I stated ‘if ID activists are to be believed’. If that is the case, the Type III secretory system would have been the designed one. Makes it even worse an argument.

I believe that the data suggest that type III and bacterial flagella share a common ancestry but do not quote me on this one, there are far more capable people at PT who can answer these questions.

There is the work by Gophna

Our analysis indicates that the TTSS and the flagellar export mechanism share a common ancestor, but have evolved independently from one another. The suggestion that TTSS genes have evolved from genes encoding flagellar proteins is effectively refuted.

Or as one of our resident experts Nick Matzke reported

Nguyen et al.’s (2000) conclusion has recently been challenged by Gophna et al. (2003), who demonstrated with phylogenetic trees of FlhA, FliI, FliP, and FliO homologs that type III virulence system sequences do not nest within flagellar sequences. This supports the view that the two systems diverged from a common ancestor, which could plausibly have been a type III export system functioning in a nonflagellar, nonpathogenic context. However, Gophna et al. (2003) are not able to exclude the possibility that virulence systems evolve more rapidly, or that the frequent lateral transfer of type III virulence system genes (Nguyen et al., 2000; Gophna et al., 2003) might have increased the rate of sequence divergence. Gophna et al. also cite for support the progressionist notion that evolution disfavors events such as the simplification of complex systems like the flagellum, a dubious proposition in modern evolutionary theory, especially considering the common evolutionary trend of simplification in pathogens and parasites. As long as known nonflagellar type III secretion systems are phylogenetically restricted and only function as specialized systems for eukaryote penetration, the suspicion will remain that they are derived from flagella. For the purposes of the current discussion it will be assumed that type III virulence systems are derived, although they still give valuable insights about the possible traits of a hypothetical ancestral type III secretion system.

Evolution in (Brownian) space: a model for the origin of the bacterial flagellum

See Type III secretion: a secretory pathway serving both motility and virulence (Review)

This led to assume for a while that the distal part of the machines would also have a different evolutionary origin but recent structural and functional observations suggest that it is not the case. Currently there are opposing views regarding the evolution relationship between the injectisomes and the flagellum [3,36,37]. If the injectisome needle evolved from the flagellar hook, then the presence of a secretin in the injectisomes would be even more puzzling.

From the article:

The wasp slips her stinger through the roach’s exoskeleton and directly into its brain. She apparently use ssensors along the sides of the stinger to guide it through the brain, a bit like a surgeon snaking his way to an appendix with a laparoscope. She continues to probe the roach’s brain until she reaches one particular spot that appears to control the escape reflex. She injects a second venom that influences these neurons in such a way that the escape reflex disappears.

From the outside, the effect is surreal. The wasp does not paralyze the cockroach. In fact, the roach is able to lift up its front legs again and walk. But now it cannot move of its own accord. The wasp takes hold of one of the roach’s antennae and leads it

Amazing. Sounds like Sci-Fi.

the idea of a wasp driving a cockroach home is one of those ‘the universe is weirder than you Can imagine’ dealies

yee haw! sounds like the wasps are having a little rodeo.

how fast can you hogtie a cockroach?

what gets me is how much detail the researchers would have to uncover in order to get the full story here.

that was a LOT of work!

no, wait, the wasps are “cockroach whisperers”…

Re “The wasp takes hold of one of the roach’s antennae and leads it”

Reminds me of Borg assimilating somebody… (Resistance is futile!)


So what does all this tell us of the intelligent designer beyond that he did what he did because he wanted to and that he used whatever means he needed to accomplish it? Seems he has a strong dislike for roaches and seems to have a fondness for type III secretory systems, which are part of some of the most ‘virulent’ strains. Salmonella, Yersinia, chlamydiae.…


Wherever the evidence leads suddenly may not sound as compelling an argument anymore :-)


I don’t recall anybody ever positing that the intelligent designer was benevolent, now that I think about it.

I think i know who the intelligent designer is!

could it beeeeeeeeee…


Interesting thought Sir, one never knows for whom one really ‘works’ now isn’t it?

It’s fairly obvious that the God of the Young Earth Creationist is not particularly benevolent, so I don’t think there’s much difficulty in ascribing things like this to him. If he can introduce death and pain into the entire universe in retribution for a single act of disobedience, or flood the planet because most humans were misbehaving, or send people to Hell, rigging up a few nasty parasites and pathogens falls well within his observed moral spectrum.

IDers, for their part, are careful to keep their Designer sufficiently vague in capability and motivation that no observed fact can have any bearing on either.

Really, the only people I can see this troubling are liberal theists like the young Darwin, who really would like to believe in a perfectly benevolent God that makes his nature known through the goodness of the world. And I think they’re mostly happy with the solution he suggested, that such unpleasantnesses as wasp parasitism are a necessary consequence of the same evolutionary process that produced everything that’s cool and wonderful about life on Earth.

People, more qualified than I in theology, have pointed out their concerns with Intelligent Design. My major concerns with ID are both scientific and theological. I find ID to be scientifically vacuous and as a Christian I worry about making the Designer falsifiable. Others have argued that ID tries to take away faith, an essential part of Christian religion, and replace it with science or ‘certainty’.

yee haw! sounds like the wasps are having a little rodeo.

From Libersat’s review article:

The wasp grabs one of the cockroach’s antennae and walks to a suitable oviposition location. The cockroach follows the wasp in a docile manner like a dog on a leash.

The review then cites two articles for this information (although I’m sure he witnessed it himself repeatedly), one of them going back to 1942. The relevant Simpsons quotation is obviously “I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.” Warning: the article contains some rather graphic photographs in full color, including one of the offspring wasp emerging, Alien-like, from its host. (The larva lives and pupates entirely inside its cockroach victim.)

According to Carl Zimmer, his posting on Ampulex hit a nerve

My post on zombie roaches and brain surgeon wasps seems to have hit a nerve. There have been well over 100,000 hits on that post alone, and 175 comments have been posted.

As an added bonus, Dr Gal Haspel is now answering questions.

ah, thanks Pim!

always nice to see answers from someone who actually participated.

from her first response:

…(cockroach) is hunted by many: birds, mammals, other insects, spiders, scorpions and flying shoes.

heh, sense of humor too i see.

I highly recommend anybody interested to check that thread out, at least AFTER the point where Gal gets involved.

another interesting note was the fact that this species of wasp appears to be a failure as a biological roach control, as they don’t hunt enough roaches per unit time to keep up with the roaches’ breeding rate.

I personally rank this as the most interesting “bug story” I’ve heard since I left grad school 15 years ago!

A fantastic site, and brilliant effort. A great piece of work.

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This page contains a single entry by PvM published on February 11, 2006 3:02 PM.

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