Is ‘The Last Of Us’ Mushroom Real?

The last of us begins decades ago, on a television talk show in the 1960s. A panel of experts discusses the threat of new viruses that could cause a global pandemic. (The parallels to our own world and time are hard to miss.) One of the experts says he’s not worried about a pandemic, at least from a virus. Such viruses, he explains, have existed since the dawn of time, and new ones emerge from time to time. And why they can result in significant illness and death, humanity’s natural immunity eventually adapts and the pandemic ends.

What keeps this particular expert up at night are mushrooms.

Although they seem harmless to mankind – and some fungi are quite beneficial to mankind – some strains of fungi can be quite dangerous and even parasitic. They attach to a host and can replace its tissue and even take control of the host organism. Such fungi do not attack humans because they cannot survive in temperatures as high as the human body. But, warns the talk show guest, if the planet were to warm up a bit and these fungi evolved to match a warmer planet, that could change. And if that happened, there would be no treatment for such a fungal infection, or even a chance for a cure.

In 2003 (at least within the fictional world of The last of us) this is exactly what happens. A mutated one Cordyceps fungi begin to infect people all over the world. Once infected, the afflicted basically turn into bloodthirsty zombies, hungry for human flesh and hunting anyone who isn’t infected to satisfy their monstrous appetite. 20 years later tobegins the main story of the HBO series, based on the popular PlayStation video games.

It is clear that Cordyceps infection zombies are fabricated, but the fungus itself is real, and it can infect insects in a way not entirely unlike the way it infects people on the show. Actually a specific range of Cordyceps called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis has the ability to create what is known as “zombie ants”:

In carpenter ants, the fungus snakes its way through the body and takes control of their muscles. Then, shortly before its death, the ant will leave the colony at sunset, find a high-hanging leaf or branch and grasp it in its jaws. There, the ant hangs motionless until it dies, and the fungus emits spores that rain down on unsuspecting victims. That process has earned it the nickname “zombie fungus.”

But what about zombies people? It is highly unlikely, but not completely outside the realm of scientific possibility.

David Hughes, an entomologist and biologist (and an advisor on The last of us game), have said “people get fungal diseases all the time,” especially if they are immunocompromised. The question, he argued, is not whether a fungus can infect someone, it is whether a fungus can have the ability to control someone’s behavior. And he pointed to historical examples of people getting “convulsive disorders” from eating rye tainted by fungus. (Mr. Hughes seems like a really funny guy.)

Hughes added:

The last case was in 1954, approx. in France when someone intentionally sold a load of grain to a small French town that contained the fungus. Everyone went crazy and a 12-year-old girl tried to kill her mother with a kitchen knife… so yes, consuming the mushroom will make you crazy and it is possible to get infected. But it jumps from ants to humans and so on [to other people] … it probably requires too many [improbable] circumstances must happen.

In other words, it’s not 100 percent impossible, but it’s not particularly likely.

That said, Cordyceps zombies are not exclusive to The last of us. A year after the original Last of us the game was published, the novel The girl with all the gifts used an almost identical premise to explain his zombie infection: Someone was infected with Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, and it triggered a global infection and the collapse of society. Like The last of us, The girl with all the gifts — which was adapted into a little-seen but highly effective film in 2016 — largely takes place decades later, as humanity’s few survivors try to find a cure for the fungal infection in a little girl infected but immune to mind control. side effects.

Essentially, Cordyceps zombies are good science fiction: they’re not real, but they’re built on enough real scientific principles and phenomena to make them plausible – and thus scary.

New episodes of The Last of Us premiere weekly on Sundays on HBO and HBO Max.

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