The Zombie Fungus in ‘The Last of Us’: Is it Possible in the Real World?
The post-apocalyptic zombie series “The Last of Us” has captured the world’s imagination about fungi taking over human minds.
It has sparked online discussions about how likely we could see such a disaster in real life. In response, various experts have weighed in on the possibility.
Talking about a real-world zombie fungus is an eye-opener about fungi. Spoiler alert: scientists agree that a “Last of Us” outbreak is unlikely.
How likely is a zombie fungus outbreak in humans?
— The Hill (@thehill) February 14, 2023
The Last of Us is an HBO series inspired by the PlayStation 3 video game from developer Naughty Dog.
It follows the story of Joel and Ellie as they struggle to survive the aftermath of a zombie outbreak.
Unlike other zombie-themed stories, the source of the disaster comes from a type of mushroom or fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, or cordyceps.
Believe it or not, that fungus exists in real-life. However, it only infects ants and other insects, hence the name “zombie-ant fungus” or “zombie fungus.”
Small creatures get infected after becoming exposed to their spores. Then, the zombie fungus makes its way into their brains and takes control of their movements.
The cordyceps drains all the nutrients from its host and replaces them with spores. Eventually, it will compel the insect to seek higher ground and stay.
The host expels the spores into the air so that the cordyceps can infect other small critters. In The Last of Us, it has mutated to infect humans.
In contrast, it cannot infect people in real life because our bodies are too warm. David S. Perlin, Ph.D., says it can only survive in colder hosts like insects.
Our bodies are also too complex for a zombie fungus infection. Our brains are significantly more nuanced, and we have several defense mechanisms that defend against microbes.
Also, fungi usually have no reason to rely on a host to survive. Most of them thrive on plants and soil for nutrients.
Is a zombie fungus outbreak 100% unlikely?
A cordyceps zombie outbreak is unlikely, but not impossible. Dr. Perlin explained that some fungi had developed the ability to infect humans.
“Two highly drug-resistant organisms, Candida auris and Aspergillus furnigalus, have spread widely and are now global threats, according to the CDC,” he said.
Tom Chiller, head of the Mycotic Diseases Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned, “We really only have three classes of drugs to treat severe fungal infections.”
He explained that we need to develop more medicines to combat a strain that is potentially resistant to all three.
David Hughes is one of the scientists who provided insights during the creation of The Last of Us series.
He described the show as a “real-time study in what we pay attention to and what we act on.”