The Last of Us is a computer game and HBO series about people trying to live after a contagious fungus turns regular people into zombies. The franchise’s creators didn’t have to seek far for inspiration; the show is based on a real-life species of fungus that exerts some control over the minds of its insect hosts.
Insects like ants or spiders can get infected by the cordyceps or zombie-ant fungus known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. Similar to other parasites, cordyceps depletes its host’s body of all nutrition before saturating it with spores that will enable the fungus to grow. The insect is then forced to climb to a higher elevation and stay there until it is ready to release these spores, which infect surrounding insects.
According to Bryn Dentinger, curator of mycology at the Natural History Museum of Utah and biology professor at the University of Utah, the fungus is one of the best-known and perhaps most often observed organism types with this capacity.
And he added that although there are possibilities, scientists aren’t exactly certain how cordyceps is able to have the impact that it has on insects. According to Dentinger, who enjoys HBO’s The Last of Us adaption, there are some significant discrepancies between how the fungus is represented in the programme and in real life. For instance, cordyceps does not often spread to new hosts through the mouth, and sick individuals are not linked together by a network.
The fungus cannot infect humans, which is likely the most significant factor. Yet, certain fungal species can survive at higher temperatures and can thus spread to people. According to Dentinger, fungi are becoming more able to survive greater temperatures as a result of climate change. A fungus with similar mind-control skills could eventually be able to endure the body temperature of a person.