The show centers on a man named Joel (Pedro Pascal), who becomes guardian to young Ellie (Bella Ramsey) as they navigate a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a fungal pandemic. The infection gives humans zombie-like qualities, passed on to other able-bodied humans through bites.
The last of us is a new take on the classic zombie apocalypse story, but in this dystopian world, the fungal menace gives new meaning to “based on a true story”. If you watch the show, you might be wondering if it’s possible that this zombie infection could wipe out humanity as we know it. And we’re here to tell you that fungal infection is real and could actually happen, well, somehow.
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The fungus responsible for the infection mainly affects insects and some plants, says David Hughes, an entomologist and biologist who once specialized in the subject of parasites, specifically the cordyceps variety, which is the fungus on which the show’s infection is based. The initiators of The last of us brought in Hughes to advise them on the science surrounding their doomsday concept.
What is Cordyceps?
The specific cordycep in the show, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, has a special power in real life: controlling the body of ants. Essentially, the fungus infects the ant and grows more of its cells around the brain. It hijacks the ant’s motor neurons to take control of its muscles. The fungi force the ant to crawl to the underside of a leaf to die. Once the body dies, stalks grow out of the body and release spores into the air, Hughes says. These spores fall to the ground and attach themselves to more ants to do the same thing. No need for a zombie bite to transfer the fungus.
“They walk down a sniper alley of their dead sisters who are hanging from leaves, throwing spores at them in what is essentially a death donut around the colony,” says Hughes.
After seeing a segment about ant-zombie mushrooms on the BBC documentary series Topsoil, The last of us creator Neil Druckmann was would have inspired and launched the idea for the original video game.
So, yes, the concept is very real and often happens to unfortunate ant souls.
But will it ever happen to us?
The short answer is no, not at the moment.
It would take several rounds of genetic modification for this specific fungus to survive in warm-blooded humans. We’re a little too hot for the taste of the mushrooms. This is why common fungal infections that humans face are usually located on the skin and nails (think athlete’s foot and ringworm): this is the coldest part of our body.
It’s entirely possible that the fungus could jump onto a human host, but “what it can’t do is retain its ability to control behavior,” says Hughes.
Here is the natural question: will climate change ever bring us to a point where this fungus mutates to thrive in higher temperatures and survive inside our bodies at 98 degrees?
Technically it could, yes. Even then, they would still have to mutate several times to overpower our sophisticated immune systems. But we are much more likely to suffer disasters of other proportions before we get there. Hughes says we have much, much bigger fish to fry.
“It’s a bit like rearranging the lounge chairs while the Titanic is sinking,” says Hughes. “The biggest problem we have is climate change.”
Many other potentially deadly, weather-dependent things would happen before the globe warms enough to worry about this type of infection. So Hughes shifted his studies from muscle-controlling fungi to global food security and climate change research at Penn State University. His latest attempt is a program called Plant Villagewhich uses the new science surrounding artificial intelligence to increase yield and profits for farmers in Africa.
So if the world-renowned anti-zombie scientist who helped create the series has given up research due to a limited threat, we think it’s safe to say you don’t have to worry either. .
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an associate health and fitness editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of his work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self and others.