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Is the Cordyceps fungus in 'The Last of Us' a real threat to humans?

The new drama marks HBO’s second-largest series debut over a decade, depicting a killer fungus in a post-apocalyptic world.

SAN DIEGO — On the heels of a real pandemic, the new HBO drama "The Last of Us" is turning heads in its display of a post-apocalyptic America after a fungal infection spreads rampantly amongst humans.

It’s led many to wonder whether it is rooted in reality. Is the killer Cordyceps fungus real, and could it ever threaten humans? We took viewers' questions to the experts.

Many are surprised to hear the Cordyceps fungus is indeed a real fungus. 

The creators of the video game turned television show say they were inspired by seeing Cordyceps in nature, turning insects, ants, and other arthropods into zombie-like creatures in the wild. Scientists said the fungus begins eating its host from the inside out. Once it’s ready to spread or burst, it will force the host insect or ant to climb a nearby plant above the colony, latching its mouth onto the bottom of a leaf. From there, it will burst out of the head of the host, spreading the spores onto the colony below. 

Credit: Holger Krisp

There’s still discussion about how the fungi can force this “mind-control," as some call it. Many scientists suggest it's an issue related to the nervous system, controlling the host from its muscles. In the HBO show, a mere bite from an infected human can prompt the fungus to spread. The show depicts humans turning into zombie-like cannibals, with the infection even making roots underground.

Credit: Warner Media/HBO Max

However, experts said the fungus is so specialized that the threat of this fungus making a jump from arthropods to humans (at least in our lifetime) is nearly non-existent.

“From a human viewpoint, this particular fungus does not affect us, and it’s unlikely that even in the short time we got left on earth, that fungus is going to change in its evolutionary history such that it could affect us,” Professor Nik Money told CBS 8. Money also ran the website themycologist.com and says that while many fungi can pose a significant risk to humans, Cordyceps is not one.

CBS 8 even spoke with the owner of an organic mushroom health store, where supplements containing a variety of fungi – including Cordyceps – is common. Steve Farrar ran Om Mushrooms out of Carlsbad and said Cordyceps is known to affect humans positively. “We grow two species of cordyceps up here in Carlsbad,” Farrar said. “They are highly valued dietary supplements that help with sports performance and recovery. So, it’s a wonderful mushroom.”

Farrar and Money both say that while the show's plausibility is far-fetched, it's understandable how it captivates viewers. They also hope it encourages a new generation to explore mycology as a career. Money says sometimes the reality of studying fungi is more fascinating than what you can find in fiction. “If you look at the real science of fungi, it’s much more interesting than anything that can be imaged by an author of science fiction or fantasy,” added Money. 

Credit: Nik Money

“All our surfaces: our skin is covered by many species of fungi, fungi colonize our intestines, and they can affect our behavior through our gastrointestinal system,” Farrar said. “Many things that fungi produce affect our behavior significantly—alcohol, for one thing, another one, psilocybin for magic mushrooms. So, the idea that mushrooms can affect human behavior is something that [the show creators] took to the extreme. But we are being affected by fungi every minute.”

The fascination seems to have worked, too. The premiere marked HBO’s second-largest series debut in over a decade, with 4.7 million viewers. The show has seemed to attract a larger audience with each episode premiere. ‘The Last of Us’ has also been renewed for a second season. 

Credit: CNN

“Probably, it’s a reflection of our relationship in our culture to the rest of nature,” Money said. “It’s this lack of familiarity with a good deal of it, and so with that lack of understanding, I suppose, comes fear.”

Experts have also added that climate change could be prompting changes and mutations seen in fungi (as suggested in the show). They say, however, that these evolutionary changes have occurred over millions of years, and there is a very minimal likelihood that a jump of this magnitude could ever occur. Money also noted that insects and arthropods have a much larger biomass that it would be unlikely that Cordyceps would even care to jump to humans.

Credit: CNN
Credit: CNN

So rest assured, while the Cordyceps fungus is real and can wipe out entire colonies of insects and ants in nature, it’s nothing humans should lose sleep over. The consumption of Cordyceps by humans is quite common.

You can visit Steve Farrar’s location of Om Mushrooms in Carlsbad, California, at 5931 Priestly Dr #101, Carlsbad, CA 92008. You can learn more about Nik Money’s research and education on his website, themycologist.com. 

You can play the video game ‘The Last of Us’ by the video game company Naughty Dog. You can also stream the television adaptation on Warner Media’s streaming platform, HBO Max.

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