Science

How zombie fungus is three steps away from infecting HUMANS like in The Last of Us

HBO‘s The Last of Us may be science fiction, but experts reveal how the terrifying zombie fungus could infect humans if three fundamental changes occurred in nature.

These steps include adjustments in temperature, the structure of our body and the immune system and while they are significant hurdles to overcome, mycologists believe they are not totally impossible.

The Last of Us tells the story of an apocalyptic world where cordyceps, the mind-controlling fungus, jumps from ants to humans due to climate change.

Norman van Rhijn, a Fungal Infection Group research associate at Manchester University in the UK, told DailyMail.com that the plot is not so far-fetched.

‘I remember the first scene where you see the scientists talking about this range of fungi and that it’s all going to change, I would say that is almost 100 percent right,’ van Rhijn told DailyMail.com.

‘[The Last of Us] has taken inspiration from scientific proof and just sensationalized that a little bit.’

HBO's The Last of US immerses viewers into an apocalyptic world where a zombie fungus infected humans and while the show is science fiction, experts say it is not impossible

HBO’s The Last of US immerses viewers into an apocalyptic world where a zombie fungus infected humans and while the show is science fiction, experts say it is not impossible

The series follows Joel (Pedro Pascal) as he escorts teenager Ellie (Bella Ramsey) through Boston, Massachusetts, after a fungus spread across the world turning victims into zombies that spread the fungi’s spores infecting everyone that comes into contact with it.

João Araújo, assistant curator in mycology at The New York Botanical Garden, explained to DailyMail.com that cordyceps previously evolved to allow the fungus to turn ants into zombies.

‘We hypothesize that around 45 million years ago, the fungus infected the first ant,’ Araujo said.

‘The cordyceps was [first] in beetles and then jumped to ants because both happened to be [in the same] tree trunk.’ 

Araújo continued to explain that around 35 ophiocordyceps fungi are known to turn insects into zombies, which are found in the US, Brazil, Japan and parts of Africa. 

The Last of Us has sparked fears of the real-world fungus causing the next pandemic, which van Rhijn said would not happen in our lifetime, but he also notes that we should ‘never say never.’ 

‘I am not going to say never, especially in this field when we’ve seen crazy things happen, especially how it is portrayed in the series it needs to overcome a lot of hurdles for a fungus like that to infect humans,’ he said.

The series follows Joel (Pedro Pascal) as he escorts teenager Ellie (Bella Ramsey) through Boston, Massachusetts, while a fungus spreads across the world

 The series follows Joel (Pedro Pascal) as he escorts teenager Ellie (Bella Ramsey) through Boston, Massachusetts, while a fungus spreads across the world

The Last of Us shows humans infected with the fungus, which has spread to the tops of their heads

The Last of Us shows humans infected with the fungus, which has spread to the tops of their heads

The Last of Us focuses on cordyceps, which is a fungus found in nature that infects ants to control their minds

The Last of Us focuses on cordyceps, which is a fungus found in nature that infects ants to control their minds 

Cordyceps infiltrate the ant’s muscles, but spores would have to enter the human body through our lungs.

‘In terms of physiology, the entryway through our body is through the respiratory system, although there are cases where it goes through wounds, ‘ van Rhijn said.

‘This way is not compatible with an ant, so the fungus would need to evolve with a different strategy [to infiltrate our lungs].’

‘We have mucous layers, cell types that they don’t have and the general structure is different. Airways are usually the entry point for fungi – so it would need to face an environment it is not used to.’ 

Anyone can get a fungal infection, but those with weakened immune systems are more susceptible. 

However, van Rhijn explained that ‘our immunity as a whole’ would have to change in order for the entire population to be infected by the zombie fungus.

‘It either needs to be a complete breakdown of our immunity to that fungus or the fungus needs to evolve a radical strategy not to be recognized by a complete range of cell types.’

‘We don’t fully understand it yet. But in order for a fungal pandemic to occur, our immune system must become insufficient to clear the fungus before it invades our tissue.’

One thing that has protected humans from serious fungal infections is our warm bodies and the fungus would need to adapt.

João Araújo, assistant curator in mycology at The New York Botanical Garden, explained to DailyMail.com that cordyceps (pictured) previously evolved to allow the fungus to turn ants into zombies.

João Araújo, assistant curator in mycology at The New York Botanical Garden, explained to DailyMail.com that cordyceps (pictured) previously evolved to allow the fungus to turn ants into zombies.

Experts said that while cordyceps will not infect humans anytime soon, it could happen if the fungus adapted to our warm bodies. It can currently withstand up to 80F, while our bodies sit around 98F

Experts said that while cordyceps will not infect humans anytime soon, it could happen if the fungus adapted to our warm bodies. It can currently withstand up to 80F, while our bodies sit around 98F

The fungus infiltrates the ant's body through its muscles, while it would have to evolve to spread its spores through human lungs

The fungus infiltrates the ant’s body through its muscles, while it would have to evolve to spread its spores through human lungs

Infected ants move out of the nest and onto a leaf or plant over their colony, allowing the spores to fall on other ants. Experts said that for the fungus to infect the entire human population, it would need to go unnoticed by our different immune cells

Infected ants move out of the nest and onto a leaf or plant over their colony, allowing the spores to fall on other ants. Experts said that for the fungus to infect the entire human population, it would need to go unnoticed by our different immune cells

‘So ant’s body temperature is a lot colder (think about 80F) and humans are closer to 98F,’ said van Rhijn.

‘Our elevated temperature is a thermal barrier for many things (including fungi) that can’t grow at that temperature. 

‘Basically, you can see our temperature as part of our immune system – another reason we get fever is to raise our temperature to fend off infections. 

‘So in order for a fungus to infect us, it needs to learn how to cope with a nearly 20-degree difference.’

In the second episode of The Last of Us, viewers watched in horror as an infected human had a stomach-churning kiss with a woman named Tess (Anna Torv) is also not complete science fiction.

‘I believe they’ve taken inspiration from a clip from a David Attenborough series where the fungus in the ant takes over and eventually grows out of its head.

‘But realistically, it could grow out of anywhere, so I don’t think that is too far-fetched.’

Scientists hypothesize that the parasite grows fungal cells around the brain to hijack an insect’s nervous system to control its muscles. 

Cordyceps, however, are not turning ants into vicious monsters, but Araújo said it makes the insects appear as if they were drunk.

‘The zombie ants, when they are infected, they just want a peaceful and cool place to provide a platform for the fungus,’ he said.

‘That is their last goal in life – to find a good spot for the parasite to thrive.

‘There’s no aggression. The infected ants will not attack. They act in a very strange way, like a drunk ant.’

One thing that has protected humans from serious fungal infections is our warm bodies and the fungus would need to adapt

One thing that has protected humans from serious fungal infections is our warm bodies and the fungus would need to adapt

The stomach-churning kiss scene in the second episode is not complete science fiction. 'I believe they've taken inspiration from a clip from a David Attenborough series where the fungus in the ant takes over and eventually grows out of its head,' an expert told DailyMail.com

The stomach-churning kiss scene in the second episode is not complete science fiction. ‘I believe they’ve taken inspiration from a clip from a David Attenborough series where the fungus in the ant takes over and eventually grows out of its head,’ an expert told DailyMail.com

While both experts said a zombie fungus would not infect humans anytime soon, other fungi currently in the world pose a dangerous threat.

‘I think with the first scene [from The Last of Us], where the scientists in 1960s are saying people should be aware of fungal infections, was a really nice take,’ said Araújo.

In October 2022, the World Health Organization released its first-ever list of health-threatening fungi, which includes a catalog of the 19 fungi that represent the greatest threat to public health.

‘There are things like Candida auris that are able to spread really fast,’ said van 

‘They emerged 10, 15 years ago and have already spread all over the world, and they’re incredibly difficult to treat.

‘About one-half to a third of the people who get infected die from it.

‘Another example is a fungus that causes Valley Fever that can infect healthy people.’

Valley Fever is 10 times more deadly than flu and is caused by the fungus Coccidioides.

The illness made headlines this month due to a spike in cases across the US, which scientists believe is due to climate change – the same variable that led to the zombie fungus infecting humans in The Last of Us. 

Via Daily Mail Science link

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