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Is ‘The Last of Us’ Cordyceps Fungus Real and Can It Infect Humans? read more at

Spoilers forward.

One of many freakiest sequences within the premiere episode of HBO’s The Final of Us takes place not when the hordes of senseless contaminated our bodies assault, however when an epidemiologist is requested for his ideas on pandemics. Throughout a flashback to 1968 within the episode’s opening scene, this epidemiologist—a person named Dr. Neuman—seems calm and calculated throughout a stay speak present, through which he shrugs off any long-term concern over viruses. In his apparently esteemed opinion, viruses have all the time and can all the time assault and kill people, however people have the instruments to struggle them off. People will die. Humanity will prevail.

However fungi, he posits, are one other beast completely. “Fungi appear innocent sufficient,” he tells the viewers. “Many species know in any other case. As a result of there are some fungi who search to not kill however to regulate.”

His fellow scientist scoffs; all these fungi usually are not studied contorting people however, somewhat, ants. Dr. Neuman acquiesces. “True, fungi can not survive if its host’s inside temperature is over 94 levels,” he says. “And presently, there aren’t any causes for fungi to evolve to have the ability to stand up to increased temperatures. However what if that have been to alter? What if, for example, the world have been to get barely hotter?”

At this level, the alarm bells ought to be ringing for nearly anybody watching at house. The Earth is warming, and never simply barely. As Dr. Neuman continues, his phrases change into solely extra ominous. The fungus he cites has no aim apart from to unfold, by any means obligatory, ravaging “billions of puppets with poisoned minds.” Then he provides the actual kicker: “And there aren’t any remedies for this, no preventatives, no cures. They don’t exist. It’s not even doable to make them.”

Even probably the most unflappable viewer is perhaps hard-pressed to observe this with out muttering an audible, “Uhh…?” And expensive reader, your concern is legitimate. The Final of Us, based mostly on the 2013 PlayStation recreation of the identical title, endeavors to really feel as actual as doable, even when its monsters look extra like alien abominations than the mushrooms most of us are conversant in. That is intentional; an clever tactic to straddle the fictional and the factual. However how a lot real-world fear is an excessive amount of? We’re nonetheless battling by way of one pandemic; do we actually want to start out fretting over one other? One with no vaccine? Is that this merely Final of Us fear-mongering, or do I would like to start out giving portobellos the side-eye?

The reply is sure and no. And that’s the brilliance of the HBO adaptation, which takes the online game’s already well-grounded horror and fills within the shadows simply sufficient to speculate us, addict us, and terrify us. Forward, let’s focus on what’s actually value getting frightened over.

infected clicker from the last of us

One of many contaminated in The Final of Us.


Is cordyceps actual?

Sure. In actual fact, there are quite a few kinds of cordyceps fungi, although Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is the one from which The Final of Us derives its narrative. Recreation author (and co-creator of the HBO present) Neil Druckmann first encountered the fungus in a 2008 Planet Earth clip, which depicted an ant slowly consumed—and managed—by insatiable blooms that rained spores onto the ant’s colony. Druckmann inserted a model of this fungus into The Final of Us, which switched the victims from bugs to people by way of contaminated crops.

How does this zombie fungus work in actual life?

As science author Ed Yong specified by dire element for a 2017 story in The Atlantic, the fungus performs a unclean recreation: When it infects an ant, it kills neurons and hijacks the insect’s management panel—with out really piercing the mind. Because it strips the bug’s physique of vitamins, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis strikes the ant to an elevated plant stem, one with the place the temperature and humidity circumstances are perfect for fungi to flourish. There, it freezes the ant in place by paralyzing its jaws across the stem, permitting the fungus time to unfold by way of the physique, burst by way of the pinnacle, and develop spores, which may then float from above down onto the remainder of the ant’s colony as they trudge by. And so the an infection spreads.

Yong describes this impact in chilling prose, citing that Pennsylvania State College entomologist and meals safety professor David Hughes believes “[the fungus] successfully cuts the ant’s limbs off from its mind and inserts itself in place, releasing chemical substances that drive the muscle tissues there to contract. If that is proper, then the ant ends its life as a prisoner in its personal physique. Its mind continues to be within the driver’s seat, however the fungus has the wheel.”

You may perceive why such a real-world impact would make for a scrumptious zombie story.

Might local weather change actually create contaminated fungus zombies like those in The Final of Us? Can cordyceps infect people? Briefly: Ought to I be frightened?

Evolution of fungi in response to local weather change is much from an unreasonable concern. Dr. Ilan Schwartz, a Duke College Faculty of Medication infectious ailments specialist, put it this method to Vulture: “It’s not outlandish, the argument that world warming has elevated the thermal tolerance of a fungi. It hasn’t been confirmed. It’s a speculation, and it’s taking place on a reasonably gradual scale. However it’s doable.”

That mentioned, cordyceps can not presently invade people, and a few specialists imagine the fungus is unlikely to make that transfer any time quickly, if ever. In an interview with Forbes, João Araújo, a New York Botanical Backyard assistant curator of mycology and an professional in insect-associated fungi, informed Forbes it’s “impossible” cordyceps might take over human our bodies in the identical method as bugs. Hughes, in his personal Forbes interview, echoed these ideas, including that cordyceps infecting people is “not that fanciful” however that cordyceps controlling people, as witnessed in The Final of Us, isn’t doubtless one thing to fret about.

In a separate interview from 2019, Hughes—who consulted on the unique The Final of Us recreation—defined that fungi are certainly a hazard to people, citing that 1.3 million individuals die yearly resulting from fungal ailments. However Ophiocordyceps “leaping from ants to people after which onward [to other people]…that most likely requires too many [improbable] circumstances to occur.”

The Final of Us director Craig Mazin isn’t too involved in regards to the fungus both. “It’s actual—it’s actual to the extent that all the things [Dr. Neuman] says that fungus do, they do,” Mazin informed The Hollywood Reporter in January. “They usually presently do it and have been doing it perpetually. There are some outstanding documentaries that you would be able to watch which are fairly terrifying. Now his warning—what in the event that they evolve and get into us?—from a purely scientific viewpoint, would they do precisely to us what they do to ants? I don’t assume so. I doubt it.”

Ultimate verdict: Cordyceps as a severe risk to people—and their bodily autonomy—isn’t outright unimaginable, however it’s unbelievable. Nonetheless, these monsters in your display screen are one more good reminder of local weather motion’s significance.

dead ant because of cordyceps fungus, from indonesian new guinea

An ant contaminated with cordyceps fungi.

Reza Saputra//Getty Photos

In idea, is Dr. Neuman appropriate? There could be no remedy for an outbreak just like the one in The Final of Us?

Right here, we’re moving into tough speculative territory—however it’s additionally a part of what makes The Final of Us adaptation so sensible. All the plot hinges on a younger woman named Ellie, who’s supposedly resistant to the results of cordyceps regardless of her latest an infection. After sustaining a zombie chew—which ought to have “turned” her inside a matter of hours—she retains her humanity and sprouts no stalks or fungal blooms. As such, she is perhaps the long-awaited miracle vaccine builders have to create a remedy.

So why, then, did the present creators embody Dr. Neuman’s warning at the start of the collection? Are there actually, as he says, “no remedies for this”? And if we already know Ellie’s mission is in useless, why spend money on it in any respect?

For one factor, Dr. Neuman may very well be incorrect. An outbreak like this has, blessedly, by no means occurred in people, and there’s proof of different species “domesticating” cordyceps, using it as a organic pal somewhat than a foe.

However he may be proper. As Dr. Schwartz informed Vulture, fungi are extra intently associated to people than they’re micro organism that trigger infections; in different phrases, their “cell equipment is similar as ours.” That makes antifungals far more troublesome to develop than antibacterials, as antifungals want to focus on fungal cells with out additionally hurting human cells. This may very well be the problem Dr. Neuman is citing throughout the speak present.

We’ll have to see extra episodes to completely perceive the place The Final of Us lore and science diverge, and what particular worries Dr. Neuman implied in his speech. However the inclusion of this dialogue units up all the thesis of the present (and the sport). That is the ethical query: What do you struggle for when the result’s undetermined? What’s value extra, the remedy or the woman? And if the reply isn’t clear, who will get to determine? With Dr. Neuman’s phrases, the collection forces viewers to assume by way of a terrifying prospect: not that of dropping management, however of having it. What occurs in the event you’re confronted with the likelihood that your efforts are futile, that you’ll lose, and you need to endure anyway? In that setting, what sort of individual would you change into?

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Affiliate Editor

Lauren Puckett-Pope is an affiliate editor at ELLE, the place she covers movie, TV, books and vogue. 

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