New Species Of Grim Parasitic Fungus Aptly Named After The 2020 Covid Quarantine

Is that a parasitic fungus branching out of your back or are you just happy to see me? Hesperomyces halyziae on a ladybird, one of two new species discovered in Europe. Maria Justamond

When the clock struck midnight on December 31 2019, I doubt many of us were thinking the following year would be full of phrases like “lockdown” and “self-isolating”, and yet suddenly we’ve all found ourselves fluent in the language of a pandemic. It seems fitting therefore that when a team of scientists found themselves at a loss for what to name a new species of parasitic fungus "quarantine" jumped to mind. The discovery, published in the journal MycoKeys, describes a novel fungus named Laboulbenia quarantenae, to mark this extraordinary yet deeply unpleasant time.

Using a white sheet illuminated at night with some artificial light as well as pitfall traps, a team of entomologists carried out a comprehensive study of arthropods looking for signs of novel fungal species in Belgium and the Netherlands. Laboulbenia quarantenae was one of two novel species found, and grows externally on the body of Bembidion biguttatum, a kind of ground-dwelling beetle. The fungus is thought to be very rare compared to its more common cousin, Laboulbenia vulgaris.

Thalli of the newly described species Laboulbenia quarantenae, named after the COVID-19 quarantine period. The scale bar represents 0.1 mm. André De Kesel

Laboulbeniales grow in an unusual way compared to most fungi, which grow branching thread-like hyphae or mycelium. Instead, they sprout a single three-dimensional thallus made up of thousands of cells that sticks to the host organism. The other new species discovered by the team was Hesperomyces halyziae, a novel fungus that differs from L quarantenae in producing a haustorium, a hyphal outgrowth that pierces the exterior of their unfortunate arthropod hosts. This adaptation grants them access to the host’s body cavity and the circulatory fluid it contains, increasing the surface area through which they steal nutrients and tightening their grip on their host. What a charming union.

The study authors state that these arthropods and their respective fungi afflictions are an example of the “evolutionary arms race” which exists between parasites and their hosts as each must evolve novel weapons and defenses in order to stay one step ahead. This kind of competitive specialization acts as an evolutionary pressure, which can eventually lead to the emergence of a new species altogether. Who knows, we could be announcing the description of L secondwavae any day now.

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