Sierra Madden | Staff Writer
HBOMax recently released a new show based on the popular RPG game, “The Last of Us”. In this game you play as Joel, who travels with Ellie in a world that has been taken over by a fungus known as Cordyceps. Taking on the plot of any good horror game, you must navigate your way through this zombie infested world to get Ellie, who seems to be immune to the spreading fungus, to the militia group known as the Fireflies to find a cure.
The release of the series has social media buzzing as it goes into more details of how the outbreak has occurred. The question is, how accurate is the science they present, and are the ideas of humanity being overrun by fungi pathogens?
Fungus is all around us, on us and in us. It is often given the negative connotation due to cases of mold, yeast infections, athletes foot and now negative views on television. While there are fungi that are harmful, there are also those that give support. We use it to make our bread, its in our gut to help us keep healthy, and even give us the oxygen we breathe along with other plants.
Cordyceps are very real, but do not infect humans as depicted in “The Last of Us” (as of right now at least). This parasitic fungi grows within the larvae of insects. The strand of cordyceps known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis has been studied to find that they do indeed take over a host’s body, creating a sort of zombie insect. They have been found in foraging ants in tropical rainforests. According to National Geographic, the fungi spreads into the ant’s heads, infecting their nervous system, and compels them to move towards humid climates to benefit their survival. The fungus then takes over the hosts body and kills them. So, next time you see a funny looking ant, consider the fact that there are zombie ants out there!
While this idea of an army of zombie ants is terrifying, it is unlikely to happen due to maintaining ecosystems. The fungus is part of this ecosystem and acts as a population control for the foraging ants.
Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is only one example of cordyceps that take over their host. Research so far has been able to identify up to 200 species of cordyceps that can infect up to 10 different species of insects. There has not been evidence to show if there are significant behavioral changes within the hosts like the foraging ants however.
“The Last of Us” has people concerned due to their mostly accurate knowledge on Cordyceps but fear not, these fungi will not be infecting your body anytime soon. Cordyceps are unable to grow within our internal body temperature or overthrow our immune systems, so we are not an ideal host for them. It is not out of the question that one day they may be able to adapt, but if they were, it would be thousands of years from now.
More research is still being done on the popular fungi, as it may hold health benefits if handled properly. According to Tuli et al. in their research study of the therapeutic benefits of Cordyceps, it was found that Cordyceps were often used in old Chinese medical practices. They have been shown to be effective on hepatic, renal, cardiovascular, respiratory, nervous, sexual, immunological systems.
As more shows come out with scientific background it is important to look at the current research behind concepts before assuming the worst. Remember to look for the facts instead of worrying about a zombie apocalypse right away.