The fungus in "The Last of Us" isn't fictional. Could it infect humans?

You surely don't want the answer to be yes. But it still is.
Ameya Paleja
The explosion of the infected human in The Last of Us
The explosion of the infected human in The Last of Us

Liane Hentscher/HBO 

Only one episode of The Last of Us has been aired so far, and everybody is already talking about the zombie fungus that ended the world as we know it today. For a world still feeling the pandemic's effects, the natural question is, could it be real?

Before we answer this question, here's a clip that will give you an idea of what this is all going to be about, just in case you haven't had a chance to see what it is all about. (It isn't the full trailer, but it has more images of what we will talk about later).

Apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fiction is not everybody's cup of tea. Some watch it for creative ways that writers think the world could change if the human population collapsed and resources weren't constrained anymore. Most watch it for the story of the unsung hero who goes against everything to achieve a mission he has taken upon himself. Some, like us, poke into the reality of the premise and if it could come to pass.

Zombie Fungus

When 28 Days Later was released, little did anyone imagine that there could be a time in our lifetimes when the streets would be empty, thanks to one virus. Perhaps, the story of a virus was too close to reality for the producers of the show, who then relied on zombie fungus instead.

There is no massive creative leap when one speaks about a fungus capable of infecting an organism and controlling its behavior. Ophiocordyceps is the name given to the genus of fungi capable of such capabilities and has been known for nearly a century now. British mycologist Tom Petch described them way back in 1931, and science today has on record at least 140 species of these fungi that infect insects. It has also served as an inspiration for zombie movies and games before, one being The Last of Us.

Yes, Ophiocordyceps infect insects similarly to how the Zombie Fungus infects humans in The Last of Us. Infected fungus victims usually lose control of their being and, under the influence of the infection, move to a vantage point like a high branch where they can spread the fungal spores over a large area.

Here's David Attenborough explaining what happens ever so often in the wild.

Could it happen to humans?

Interestingly, the series itself begins by explaining the scenario in which the fungus has evolved and, instead of attacking insects, began infecting humans instead. The reason for that is humanity itself which has been warming the planet through its activities, and the fungus now needs to evolve to survive at higher temperatures.

This also opens up the field for the fungus to infect other organisms whose body temperature it could not tolerate before. While there isn't much known about the Zombie Fungus in the series, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has already come across fungal infections of this type, such as Candida auris. Apart from its ability to spread in hospital settings, C.auris is notorious for being resistant to existing anti-fungal treatments. Worse still, four such strains of the fungus evolved around the same time, as per CDC's report. All this has come to pass in the last decade.

As we have seen with COVID-19, even a single strain can cause havoc if it spreads rapidly, and spore dispersal by exploding a human host could be quite an effective way of spreading the fungus. Except that fungal spores wouldn't travel far and wide but be limited to the dark and dingy places where the infected chose to remain.

Perhaps, the writers have an explanation for that in the coming episodes. But in a series where the protagonist is wielding a gun at most times, the explanation is unlikely to make it to the audience.

Did anyone tell Pedro Pascal that splattering a fungus with a gunshot would also spread the spores around? Or are we too late for that now?

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