The terrifying zombie mushroom in The Last of Us is real

The terrifying zombie mushroom in The Last of Us is real

HBO’s The Last of Us, a new television series based on the acclaimed video game of the same name, finally premiered Sunday after a highly anticipated run.

The story follows an unlikely duo as they traverse a post-apocalyptic, monster-ridden America years after a zombie mushroom devastated humanity. It’s creepy stuff, and considering that a) the zombie mushroom the story is based on is real, and b) humanity is still recovering from a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of millions so far, you might Forgive viewers for wondering: could this actually happen?

Again, the show’s plot is based on a real group of mushrooms, Ophiocordyceps. Better known as the “zombie mushroom” – very conspicuous, scientists – this genus of fungus has the creepy ability to hijack the minds of infected insect hosts, killing the host from the inside as it makes its way to a bug’s brain.

Once the poor insect is dead, the fungus can manipulate the infected nervous system to maneuver the body and guide the undead carcass to the highest vantage point it can reach. The higher it can climb, the more it can spread its spores—and the more insects it can eventually infect.

Luckily insect zombie fungi are not yet infecting humans.

However, in recent years, fungi have become increasingly resistant to treatments and are also evolving quite quickly. Many experts have warned that the next pandemic could well be caused by fungi; In the world of The Last of Us, warming global temperatures caused the fungus to mutate, ultimately making humans vulnerable. And as molecular biologist Ameya Paleja points out Interesting techniqueat least one fungal infection Candida Aurishas been changing fairly rapidly in the human population over the past decade.

However, when it comes to the Cordyceps brain infection — as the fungus is called on the TV show — most experts seem confident that a zombie fungus mutation capable of infecting humans is unlikely.

Human and insect biology, as said by João Araújo, associate curator and researcher in mycology at the New York Botanical Garden forbes, is incredibly different. The fungus would have to mutate a lot to be able to take over human brains and is therefore “unwilling to enter, establish itself and sporulate in a human body” – especially considering that it has been around for about 130 million years and in that time was not able to make the biological leap from insect to any other animal species.

Also in conversation forbes, a few other scientists echoed Araújo’s opinion, with Charissa de Bekker, an expert on parasitic fungi and an assistant professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, stating that even if the fungus did enter the human body, it simply didn’t have the “tools to to manipulate our brain” in the foreseeable future. These are specialized pathogens that evolved over millions of years to be able to expertly control the mind of a particular bug. To suddenly be able to control someone’s mind would be a remarkable feat indeed.

All in all, the chance that humanity will soon contract the Cordyceps brain infection? Pretty slim. But we unfortunately can’t say the same for the likelihood of another, albeit non-zombifying, fungal pandemic.

In any case, Paleja has a pretty solid touch for the HBO show.

“Did anyone tell Pedro Pascal that spraying a mushroom with a shot would also spread the spores?” he mused. “Or are we too late for that now?”

More about mushrooms between us: The next pandemic could be caused by terrible fungi, scientists warn

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