Like a virus, The Last of Us has infected the minds of everyone who has watched it this past week. Fans of the games and newcomers alike have become obsessed with the new series, which quickly shot to the top of streaming charts worldwide. One of the things that makes The Last of Us so scary is the cordyceps outbreak, which is in fact based on a very real parasite.
What is cordyceps?
Cordyceps is a type of ascomycete fungi that is parasitic on insects and arthropods. It’s sometimes referred to as the ‘zombie fungus’.
There are over 600 species of cordyceps that can infect all sorts of insects.
As explained by National Geographic, when an ant is infected by cordyceps it is no longer in control of its body. Its mission becomes to infect the rest of its colony.
It will crawl away from the group and hang on a leaf. Then the fungus consumes its body and breaks out of its head, releasing spores into the air.
This video from the BBC documents how cordyceps fungi infect their prey and was actually the video that inspired Neil Druckmann, the creator of The Last of Us.
It’s something that sounds like it’s been ripped straight out of a sci-fi movie, but cordyceps is, in fact, a very real part of our world.
Could the pandemic from The Last of Us really happen?
The Last of Us shows us a world where the cordyceps fungus infects humans, turning them into mind-controller monsters with a mission to infect, similar to the way it operates in insects. Surely that couldn’t really happen, right?
In the opening of the premiere of The Last of Us, an epidemiologist warns audiences of a specific type of fungus that can infect an ant and control its mind.
At this point in time, there’s no way for the fungus to survive above 94 degrees (34°C). Therefore, it cannot live in a human host. However, he warns of what would happen if the fungus should evolve.
“What if that were to change? What if, for instance, the world were to get slightly warmer?” he says.
It’s a chilling warning, particularly given all we know about the climate change crisis our planet is currently experiencing.
We’ve also just experienced a global pandemic that saw multiple strains of a virus evolve, so the idea of a fungus mutating to jump between species doesn’t seem that far-fetched. But let’s see what science says.
Dr Ilan Schwartz, a researcher with the Duke University School of Medicine, told Vulture in an interview that it’s not “outlandish” to think climate change could have an impact on fungi:
“The argument that global warming has increased the thermal tolerance of a fungi. It hasn’t been proven. It’s a hypothesis, and it’s happening on a fairly slow scale. But it is possible.”
Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, added in a chat with The Washington Post:
“Fungi will adapt to warmer climates by developing greater heat tolerance. Some will then be able to grow at human temperatures and cause new fungal diseases that we have not seen before.”
However, João Araújo, a researcher in mycology at the New York Botanical Garden, told Forbes that the possibility of cordyceps jumping from insects to humans is “unlikely”, saying “[they’re] not prepared to invade, establish within and transmit spores from a human body.”
Casadevall added that the mind-control aspect of cordyceps also isn’t plausible, saying “it’s not likely because they have evolved to control precisely the ant’s behaviour, controlling the motor neuron system. If they get into humans, they’re not going to be evolved to have that precise control of behaviour.”
All in all, it seems like we don’t have much to worry about from cordyceps right now, but that doesn’t mean that won’t change in the future.
Regardless, I’m going to play The Last of Us game a few more times, just in case.