Why the Zombie Fungus in ‘The Last of Us’ Can Cause a Real Life Apocalypse

By Lauren Dulatre

In the video game, now a show on HBO The Last of Us, the ‘infected’ are shown with fungi bursting out from their bodies. These ‘fungal parasites’ operate by acting as puppeteers, commanding, and positioning the host’s body. 

The creators of The Last of Us have said that they took the inspiration of the ‘fungal parasites’ from a sequence from a documentary called BBC’s Planet Earth. In the sequence it shows an ant that was infected by a fungus that hijacked its brain, forcing the ant to climb a tree and dangle from it above the forest floor. In the scene, it showed the fungus digesting the ant from the inside out, and unleashing more spores across the ant’s body to make more fungi. 

As the zombie fungus exists, according to Charrisa de Bekker who is an assistant professor in the biology department at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, the fungus are ‘super species-specific’. “They have very refined machinery to interact with their hosts and do these really interesting things like changing behavior, but they can’t even jump from one species to the next, let alone to an organism as distantly related as a human”, de Bekker explained. The immunity humans have against the fungus is evident from the amount of harmless interactions they have had with it.

While humans are so far safe from the mind controlling fungus, David Hughes who is a scientist that helped research the fungus and consulted on the video game, said that there is a possibility that the fungus can find its way to control human beings. Professor de Bekker explains how climate change impacts the ants. “In a warming world, fungi also have to adapt to a warmer climate,” de Bekker said. “And you can imagine then, if their optimal growth temperatures therefore become higher and closer to our body temperatures, it might be more likely that in the future, we have more fungal infections in humans than we see right now.”

Researches show that fungal diseases are harder to treat than bacterial infections because fungi share similar cell structures with humans. This fact makes it harder to find a treatment that targets the fungus and not the human body. 

“A warm future with more fungal infections would especially endanger people with weakened immune systems,”  said Dimitrios Kontoyiannis who is deputy head in the division of internal medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the leader of its Medical Mycology Research Center.

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