From rainforest to Hollywood: Penn State biologist advises on zombies

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State biologist David Hughes has spent the last decade studying parasite-host interactions around the globe. In particular, he is fascinated by zombie behavior, where a parasite actually takes over the brain of its host and causes the host to do its bidding.

His work on one particularly dramatic example, the so-called zombie ant phenomenon, has attracted worldwide attention.

In addition to receiving blanket coverage in the more traditional science media, Hughes has been engaged as a scientific consultant for World War Z, the upcoming Hollywood film starring Brad Pitt as a U.N. worker battling a global zombie apocalypse.

"They wanted to know, given that the zombies in the movie are all infected by a virus and that viruses evolve, what might you expect then?" he said. "It's the evolution of virulence, competition—all the meat and potatoes that we do in the Centers for Infectious Disease Dynamics, but brought to the screen."

Hughes is also advising Sony on a video game called The Last of Us, whose premise involves a worldwide plague caused by "my own" Ophiocordyceps fungus.

"All of this is just enormously good fun," he said, "because I'm motivated by this opportunity to get the science to people who wouldn't get it in another way. I think that the media, movies, and games are a really, really great way to do that."

World War Z and The Last of Us are both scheduled for release in June.

A dead carpenter ant attached to leaf in the understory of a Thai forest. Before killing the ant, the fungus growing from ant's head changed the ant's behavior, causing it to bite into the leaf vein. Credit: David Hughes / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated June 03, 2013