The Last of Us: Scientists say a fungal pandemic is not impossible

Could "The Last of Us" become a reality one day?
Nergis Firtina
The Last of Us.
The Last of Us.


"The Last of Us," one of HBO's hit shows, would introduce us to a different zombie apocalypse. Rather than biological or chemical weapons, people become zombies due to fungus.

As reported by Insider, viewers are pondering whether a fungus pandemic may actually occur in light of the novel premise that was first imagined in the video game on which the television program is based.

If you don't know the plot, here it is briefly: Everyone is going about their daily activities one morning. The rioting in Jakarta is mentioned on the radio. By dusk, twitchy, demon-possessed ex-humans are on the hunt for the main character.

So, it's time to ask the real question. Is a fungal pandemic possible? For Norman Van Rhijn, a mycologist researching fungal infections at the University of Manchester, the answer is "yes," according to Insider.

"The potential is huge for what can emerge and become a pathogen," Tom Chiller, chief of the fungal disease branch of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Insider. "I am not going to be surprised that more fungi emerge as human pathogens that become more challenging to treat and more infectious."

The Last of Us: Scientists say a fungal pandemic is not impossible
Candida fungi.

Some facts about fungi

In "The Last of Us," zombies bloom with Cordyceps tendrils that sprout from their heads and mouths, reaching out for new victims. Cordyceps indeed exists. However, it only takes over the bodies and brains of other insects, most notably ants. Cordyceps cannot infect us because they cannot thrive at human body temperature. However, certain fungal species produce psychoactive chemicals and can influence human behavior.

Some fungi can have an impact on human brains and behavior. The component found in magic mushrooms that causes hallucinations, psilocybin, is perhaps the most obvious example. Ergot is a fungus that has a reputation for affecting people's minds.

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"Every time you have a beer, your behavior is affected by the byproduct of a fungus, which is ethanol," David Hughes, who has studied Cordyceps and consulted on the video game "The Last of Us," told Insider.

Some fiction about fungi

It is fiction that zombies with mind-control capabilities can jump inside people. Animals can transmit fungal illnesses to humans. However, it is improbable that a fungus-like Cordyceps could change sufficiently to accomplish the enormous transition from insects to people while retaining its capacity to affect behavior successfully.

It is also fiction that tendrils and human bites spread a deadly fungus. In the HBO series, zombies transmit the sickness by biting or injecting fungus tendrils into their victims. Real-world fungus transmission does not operate like that. Consider athlete's foot or ringworm as examples of fungal illnesses that are mainly spread through contact with surfaces.

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