Is ‘The Last of Us’ Fungal Pandemic Possible? A Scientific Investigation

Again in 2019, Craig Mazin and HBO launched Chernobyl, a masterful sequence dramatizing the 1986 nuclear reactor meltdown on the eponymous energy plant. The TV present earned essential reward and a few Emmys however at CNET Science we had been most occupied with how intently Mazin and co. had been in a position to persist with real-world science. Seems, they did a very good job.

Mazin’s subsequent HBO outing is The Final of Us, primarily based on the 2013 survival-horror online game of the identical title. CNET’s personal Sean Keane has described the present, which debuted on Sunday, as “the best online game adaptation ever made.”

The Final of Us imagines a world ravaged by a fungal apocalypse attributable to a creepy, mind-controlling fungus referred to as Cordyceps. That fungus is actual, so I’ve naturally been questioning simply how possible a fungi apocalypse actually is. 

The concept has been investigated within the context of the sport many occasions, however HBO’s model of the Cordyceps mind an infection is barely totally different to the one sport developer Naughty Canine first conjured in 2013. 

What follows is an investigation of the plausibility of a fungal pandemic, attributable to a Cordyceps-like pathogen that modifications human conduct. I’ll assume you are not less than considerably accustomed to the story of Joel and Ellie, the 2 protagonists making their method throughout the ruins of a post-apocalyptic USA. I am additionally going to say on the prime that that is an examination of a fictional world, so there’s at all times wiggle room for the story to develop in surprising methods.

This contains some mild spoilers from episodes 2 and three of The Final of Us, so if you happen to’re making an attempt to maintain your viewing expertise spoiler-free, it is time so that you can bail. 


The true world inspiration for The Final of Us

You may blame David Attenborough and nature documentaries for the shambling, clicking horrors that hang-out The Final of Us.

In a must-watch episode on jungles within the 2006 BBC sequence Planet Earth, Attenborough and his documentary staff encounter numerous behavior-manipulating fungi, together with one which parasitizes carpenter ants: Ophiocordyceps. Within the clip, which has been seen on YouTube over 10 million occasions, the digicam lingers on an ant with its jaws wrapped round a tree department. A ghostly violin performs as Attenborough narrates the scene.

“Like one thing out of science fiction, the fruiting physique of Cordyceps erupts from the ant’s head,” he says. 

The Planet Earth scene impressed Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, the director and artistic director respectively, on 2013’s The Final of Us. In a GamesBeat interview after the sport’s launch, Druckmann mentions “ripping off” the documentary and Straley says that zombie ants had been the “leaping off level” for the sport. And the sport does hew intently to its real-world supply materials.

The life cycle of Ophiocordyceps is grotesque however stunning. Ants that come into contact with Ophiocordyceps spores on the jungle flooring turn out to be contaminated. The fungus slips contained in the ant’s physique and begins to copy. It takes up residence particularly areas, just like the mind and muscle, releasing chemical compounds to govern conduct of the ant. The ant is directed to the underside of a leaf, excessive above the bottom, and bites into it. Its jaw locks across the leaf because of some intelligent fungal compounds and it stays there till the fruiting physique erupts from its head. Ultimately it bursts open and releases extra spores to the bottom.

The method is very particular. One species of Ophiocordyceps usually infects and zombifies only one species of ant. This specificity extends to the best way the fungus takes over the thoughts of its host. A 2014 paper explored the ant-fungus relationship, discovering that Ophiocordyceps had developed a specific set of compounds to affect conduct of 1 species of ant, however those self same compounds didn’t alter the conduct of various ant species (although the fungus will nonetheless usually kill these ants).

Our real-world understanding of the fungus has additionally modified since The Final of Us was launched in 2013.

The Planet Earth documentary was launched in 2006. On the time, the ant-infecting parasite was, scientifically, referred to as Cordyceps unilateralis. In 2007, lots of the Cordyceps fungi that parasitize bugs, together with ants but in addition issues like caterpillars and spiders, had been reclassified into a distinct household of fungi — Ophiocordyceps. Whereas The Final of Us makes use of these two phrases interchangeably, they’re now classed as totally different genera of fungi and scientists nonetheless use Cordyceps as a type of generic title for all of the species.

The Final of Us timeline

The pandemic’s origins will not be revealed within the online game past just a few stray newspaper clippings and notes, which appear to level to a South American origin. HBO’s adaptation dives a bit additional into the backstory, particularly in episodes 2 and three. This provides us a bit extra to work with when it comes to actual world plausibility.

Here is the timeline, as we perceive it.

On the morning of Sept. 23, 2003, a lady working at a flour and grain manufacturing facility on the western facet of Jakarta was bitten by an unknown human being. She grew to become violent, attacked 4 coworkers, biting three of them, earlier than being locked in a rest room and shot within the cranium.

The three coworkers who had been bitten had been executed just a few hours later. Fourteen coworkers couldn’t be positioned.

A day later, on Sept. 24, 2003, two law enforcement officials in Jakarta, Indonesia stroll right into a restaurant and interrupt Ibu Ratna, a professor of mycology on the College of Indonesia, as she’s consuming lunch. They take her to a laboratory on the Ministry of Well being the place she appears to be like down a microscope and identifies a fungus: Ophiocordyceps. 

(Relying on the species Ratna noticed, the fungus would have possible been classed as a Cordyceps in 2003… a possible plot gap or pedantry?)

Ratna asks why it has been stained with chlorazol — which is usually used to determine fungal components from human hair, nails or different specimens. “Cordyceps can not survive in people,” she tells the police officer. She then examines the corpse of the lady who labored on the flour and grain manufacturing facility. She cuts open the chunk wound on the lady’s leg and rummages round in her mouth, discovering the corpse has been colonized by Ophiocordyceps.

After making her discovery, she makes a advice: The officer ought to bomb the town and everybody in it. 

On Sept. 26, 2003, the outbreak hits the US. That is dubbed Outbreak Day. In Austin, Texas, the primary indications of hassle are apparent as ambulances screech by way of the town at round 3:15 p.m. 

Within the early hours of Sept. 27, the outbreak reaches essential mass and the streets turn out to be chaotic. Planes are crashing into the bottom. Highways out of Austin turn out to be blocked by the navy. Members of the general public have, in opposition to the recommendation of the emergency broadcast system, fled their properties. 

By Monday, Sept. 29, Joel explains to Ellie, “all the pieces was gone.”

Ellie sits in room with grass on the floor as Tess talks to her in The Last of Us.

In The Final of Us, humanity tries to select itself up 20 years after a mutant Cordyceps fungus kickstarts a pandemic.


So, might it occur?

The quick reply is: It is inconceivable. The longer reply? Perhaps, however with a ton of caveats

There are two key plot gadgets that underpin the fungal pandemic within the TV model of The Final of Us — local weather change and the way the fungi reproduce.

The Final of Us units up its first season with an interview phase that takes place in 1968. Two fictional researchers are discussing pandemics on a chat present. Considered one of them, Dr. Neumann, says he is not terrified of micro organism or viruses kickstarting a pandemic, not like the opposite visitor. What scares him most is fungi. Principally as a result of they do not simply kill the host, however take it over. 

The viewers laughs (and after the previous three years, you may too). Then 35 years later within the fictional world, that is precisely what occurs.

In the true world, scientists have usually puzzled why bugs, vegetation and amphibians are so prone to fungal ailments. Analysis has proven that regulating physique temperature, or homeothermy, is a superb barrier in opposition to fungal an infection. Fungi thrive in cooler environments and that is why they’re potent enemies of bugs, amphibians and vegetation. It additionally means they are not as large a hazard to hot-blooded animals, like ourselves. Fungi even have to have the ability to take in human tissue, which they largely battle to do, and even when they handle to invade us, they nonetheless should take care of a strong human immune system.

People can be contaminated by fungi, although. Candida, a yeast which causes thrush, is a potent species. A multidrug-resistant species, Candida auris, is of main concern in hospitals. There are additionally molds, which trigger athlete’s foot and ringworm. Generally, these fungi evade our defenses, particularly these of us with compromised immune techniques. 

“The one factor it’s a must to bear in mind with fungal infections is that they predominantly infect individuals with an underlying situation,” Julianne Djordjevic, an affiliate professor on the College of Sydney who research fungal an infection of people, tells CNET.

Issues are altering, although. The world, ours and the one in The Final of Us, is heating up. “What if, as an example, the world had been to get barely hotter?” the fictional Dr. Neumann asks within the premiere. Larger temperatures might see fungi slowly adapt and evolve to resist the forms of warmth they may expertise inside a human physique. Some scientists consider that is why Candida infections may be on the rise. 

One other species referred to as Ophiocordyceps sinensis, discovered on the Tibetan plateau, supplies a possible counter. The species has lengthy been utilized in Chinese language drugs and a number of the compounds it creates have been studied for his or her anti-cancer properties. Nonetheless, in 2018, mycologists confirmed local weather change — along with overharvesting — was resulting in a decline within the species. The Himalayas are significantly susceptible because the world warms and, not less than for this species, adaptation and evolution aren’t preserving tempo. Maybe we’re warming the world too rapidly for fungi to adapt.

Spores and tendrils

However how does Cordyceps unfold? And so quick? As an ascomycetes, or sac fungi, the Ophiocordyceps that inhabit Earth’s temperate jungles propagate and survive by way of spores. It is a part of their life cycle: infect an ant, take it over, create a fruiting physique, launch the spores, begin once more.

HBO’s adaptation makes one large change from the online game: spores aren’t the best way Cordyceps strikes between individuals. Mazin has mentioned that is largely as a result of spores would imply all people must put on a masks on a regular basis (I am undecided that is significantly true however it might be fairly clunky in a TV present). Nonetheless, the variation replaces spores with “tendrils” and bites from contaminated individuals, two issues we have not seen as infectious brokers in the true world. They’re additionally affected by proximity. Whereas spores can journey lots of of miles, tendrils and bites want shut contact.

That is the hardest a part of this pandemic to sq., however The Final of Us tries to supply a inventive resolution as to how society collapsed. 

Joel wearing a gas masks punches an Infected in a dimly lit room. Torchlight provides a silhouette of the Infected against a green and white wall.

Within the online game, Joel and Ellie typically don gasoline masks in areas of dense Cordyceps spores.

Naughty Canine

Early within the sequence, as Joel and Ellie are wandering by way of the wreckage of civilization, Joel briefly touches on the accepted narrative of the pandemic’s origins: Cordyceps mutated. Then the fungi acquired into the meals provide — issues like bread, sugar and cereal all carried the mutated pressure — and that meals provide was shuttled across the globe. 

There’s precedent for this sort of factor. The Nice Famine, which ravaged Eire within the 1840s and 1850s, was attributable to an organism much like a fungus, referred to as Phytophthora infestans, destroying potato crops. Although it did not straight infect and kill (or “thoughts management”) people, it reveals we’re not less than prone to fungi in ways in which do not get a lot consideration.

However the tendrils are nonetheless an issue for plausibility, even when their benefits for contaminated group are partially defined in an early episode.

“The fungus additionally grows underground,” Tess, one other survivor who companions with Joel, explains to Ellie in an early episode. “Lengthy fibers like wires, a few of them stretching over a mile. You step on a patch of Cordyceps in a single place and you may wake a dozen contaminated from elsewhere.” This connection might alert contaminated to uninfected and make it close to inconceivable to keep away from them, however within the early phases of the pandemic it might take some extraordinarily inept authorities responses to actually take off.

Perhaps not so unlikely, given what we learn about the latest pandemics.

Nonetheless, this alteration would require a serious evolutionary deviation for Ophiocordyceps. Offered the Cordyceps that Ibu Ratna sees down her microscope and the Cordyceps in the true world are basically the identical, it might imply the fungus has basically modified on a genetic stage to one thing totally alien. It might even be uncommon for these fungi to then be in meals crops except these crops are extremely contaminated with ants or spiders or moths. 

Overcoming these challenges we nonetheless should get to a spot the place the fungus can management the conduct of a human being. Whereas fungal compounds can alter the human thoughts (assume LSD, as an example, which was remoted from a rye fungus), the precise compounds required to make people extra aggressive and assist unfold the an infection would require a miraculous evolutionary leap for Ophiocordyceps.

There’s simply loads of challenges for a mutated fungus to beat. Maybe these shall be defined in a second season.

a cordyceps infected wasp species with two yellow, budding stalks protruding from its back

At any time when I see an insect with Ophiocordyceps stalks protruding from its exoskeleton I believe, rattling… Nature is metallic.

Kevin Schafer/Getty Photos

Ought to we fear about fungal pandemics?

Just about each main crop that humanity is determined by is threatened by a fungal pathogen. Rice, wheat and maize signify the most important and most necessary supply of energy for the human inhabitants. If a fungal pandemic had been to tear by way of the crop provide… nicely, it may not be as horrifying because the bitey, thoughts managed “zombies” of The Final of Us, nevertheless it may very well be devastating differently.

What’s regarding researchers right now is the rise of fungi that are proof against antifungal medication. In keeping with a paper revealed within the journal Science in 2018, crop-destroying fungi accounts for about one fifth of perennial yield losses. They write that “[t]o keep away from a worldwide collapse in our skill to regulate fungal infections,” we have to promote the invention of recent antifungal medication and guarantee our present use of pesticides and chemical compounds do not give rise to extra worrisome strains. 

One other consideration? A twin pandemic — one which lowers the immunity of people to such some extent that pathogenic fungi can take maintain.

Think about COVID-19. Throughout the peak of the pandemic, sufferers with COVID-19 had been typically presenting with fungal ailments. Researchers investigated instances of “mucormycosis,” which is attributable to black fungus, in 18 nations in 2022, writing that it is an understudied and poorly understood complication of extreme COVID-19. It appeared to have an effect on males greater than females and was predisposed to these with diabetes, an underlying situation that may have an effect on immunity.

Whereas it is one of many freakiest apocalypse eventualities and makes good fodder for sci-fi TV, Cordyceps is unlikely to cut back humanity’s numbers by the billion. However the enemy is on the market and we must be ready. Proper now, we’re not.

Up to date Jan. 18: Closed captions make it clear the physician firstly of the present is Dr. Neuman, not Dr. Newman. We have modified the spelling on this piece.   

Leave a Reply

GIPHY App Key not set. Please check settings