The Last Of Us: The science behind the real ‘zombie’ fungus – and is it a real threat?

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The Last Of Us: The science behind the real ‘zombie’ fungus – and is it a real threat?


Could the next public health crisis be caused by a fungus?

The threat of such an emergency is posed at the beginning of the hit TV series The Last Of Us, which begins with a dark speech by an epidemiologist in the 1960s about the dangers of fungi.

“If the world gets a little warmer, there’s reason to evolve,” warned prophet John Hannah, referring to the possibility of infecting and overwhelming a person’s mind.

“Candida, ergot, cordyceps, Aspergillus, all of which can invade the brain and rule billions, if not millions.”

The show takes this idea and runs with it, jumping back 40 years to 40 years ago when a cordyceps outbreak leads to a devastating pandemic that turns people into bloodthirsty abominations.

An extreme result of getting enough artistic licenses, but no scientific basis at all?

The Last of Us is set 20 years after the collapse of modern civilization. A die-hard survivor, Joel is hired to smuggle a 14-year-old girl, Ellie, out of a repressive quarantine zone. What begins as a small undertaking quickly becomes a brutal and heartbreaking journey, requiring both of them to traverse the United States and rely on each other for survival.
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Massive cordyceps outbreaks turn people into bloodthirsty abominations on the show.Photo: HBO/Warner Media/Leanne Hencher

Do fungi really threaten humans?

“There are already fungi inhabiting human brains around the world,” says Professor Elaine Vignell, a world leader in the field of human fungal pathogen research.

“Many fungal species are highly prominent pathogens, killing hundreds of thousands of people each year, which the general public is simply unaware of.”

Viewers of The Last of Us may have noticed some of the dangers identified by the fictional epidemiologist featured last year. World Health Organization (WHO) list of fungi that pose a health threat.

Among those considered most at risk was Aspergillus fumigatus. It is widespread in home and outdoor environments, causing “chronic and acute lung disease” and can be fatal.

mold case study
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Aspergillus is a type of mold that is commonly found in homes.

Candida species that cause common infections such as thrush and ringworm are also a leading cause of bloodstream infections in intensive care patients.

The list also includes neo-cryptococci, which infects the lungs and brain and causes pneumonia and meningitis in immunosuppressed patients.

“One thing that killer fungi have in common is that they can grow at human body temperature, which is unusual for a fungus,” Professor Bignell told Sky News.

“Most fungi in the environment are accustomed to growing in warmer conditions, which overwhelms the body’s immune response and puts considerable strain on the microbes to cope with the high temperatures.”

The main symptom of ringworm is a rash, which can spread. Photo: NHS
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The main symptom of ringworm is a rash, which can spread. Photo: NHS

What about cordyceps?

Cordyceps wasn’t on the threat list, but it’s totally real.

The parasite infects and hijacks the minds of insects, much like it infected humans in The Last Of Us.

“There are about 600 species,” says Dr. Mark Ramsdale, professor of molecular microbiology at the MRC Center for Medical Mycology.

“They’re primarily insect pathogens. It’s their insect hosts that they manipulate to change their behavior. So from that perspective, there’s some rationale there.”

Flies infected with cordyceps.Photo: Alejandro Santillana/University of Texas
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A fly infected with Cordyceps fungus.Photo: Alejandro Santillana/University of Texas

This rainforest-dwelling fungus enters the insect’s body via spores, which are released to allow the fungus to multiply and defend itself.

The fungus then induces the host to a more humid location to help it grow, eating the carcass and launching new spores from the carcass.

When it comes to humans, Cordyceps is used in remedies and cures, especially in herbal medicine.

“There’s a long history of human relationships with this particular group,” Dr. Ramsdale told Sky News.

“There’s no evidence that they cause disease in humans. But when it comes to insect relationships, they’re manipulating their hosts — and some fungi have evolved this ability over time.” rice field.”

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Cordyceps growing from caterpillars.Photo: L. Shamal/Wikimedia Commons
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Cordyceps growing from caterpillars.Photo: L. Shamal/Wikimedia Commons
Ophiocordyceps caloceroides infecting tarantulas of unknown species. This type of fungus parasitizes tarantulas. At this point, the fungus consumes the spider's tissue and has spore-producing cysts. This infection kills the tarantula's host. This photo was taken at his Santa Lucia Cloud Forest Reserve in Ecuador on a trip with Earlham College.
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Ophiocordyceps caloceroides infecting tarantulas.Photo: Ian Suzuki/Wikimedia Commons

Could the climate change things?

Another aspect of The Last of Us ominous speech shared in the landmark WHO report was the impact of climate change on the nature of fungi and our relationship with them.

Professor Bignell says the effects of global warming will be “serious” for all microbes on the planet.

There are approximately 150,000 fungal species identified worldwide, well short of the millions of species estimated to exist, that are capable of coping with 37°C temperatures and other stresses imposed by the human body. very few.

But some are yet to be discovered, and others adapt to survive on a warming planet.

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A fungus unknown to science discovered in Scotland

“It changes the selection pressure on a huge and diverse lifeform,” says Dr. Ramsdale.

“Perhaps some people move from one lifestyle to another and can become pathogens in previously unthinkable circumstances.”

So while the show’s pandemic may be far from the truth, it’s not entirely without merit.

“What really takes the most out of the current status quo is the scale and rate of infections that occur in The Last of Us,” said Professor Bignell.

“Some fungi can be passed from person to person and we are in an environment where we are constantly exposed to them, but they can cause extinction events for the species they dramatize. It takes a very important variant to become like .”

The Last of Us is set 20 years after the collapse of modern civilization. A die-hard survivor, Joel is hired to smuggle a 14-year-old girl, Ellie, out of a repressive quarantine zone. What begins as a small undertaking quickly becomes a brutal and heartbreaking journey, requiring both of them to traverse the United States and rely on each other for survival.
image:
In the show, humans transform into zombie-like monsters.Photo: HBO/Warner Media/Leanne Hencher

So… no reason to be alarmed?

You can sleep in peace tomorrow morning knowing that your cereal is free of fungus that will turn you into a zombie.

However, researchers say COVID is proving that the status quo is not complacent when it comes to public health threats and how they can emerge suddenly.

Based on the reaction to The Last Of Us’ opening episode, people quickly spotted the parallels.

With human fungal infections being a relatively recent phenomenon, with few examples until the 1980s, and no research programs for antifungal vaccines, there is certainly work to be done.

“We have to be ready,” Bignell said.

“About how different fungi cause disease in humans, how the immune system deals with those microbes, and a good medicine cabinet with antifungals that are known to be effective. , must be understood very well.”

In the meantime, if you happen to see someone who appears to be feasting on a family member covered in mushrooms, avoid it.

The Last of Us airs every Monday on Sky Atlantic and is available to watch on demand.

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