It’s just a particle. A spore of nothing. Until it comes into contact with your body: then it becomes the worst nightmare imaginable. Its fibers will spread through your flesh like a spider’s web, taking hold of your nervous system and secreting enzymes that will turn you into a puppet at your service: your will will no longer be yours, and you will only exist to help it grow and reproduce. Once that destiny is fulfilled, he will be happy to cause your death. If the above has put your nerves on edge, don’t worry: you shouldn’t worry unless you are an ant… or if the plague described in The Last of Us comes true. Like the video game, the series starring Bella Ramsey Y Peter Pascal encourages us to have a holy terror of cordyceps, a genus of fungus whose reproductive mechanism is too similar to that of Alien’s xenomorphs, or a creation of David Cronenberg during a hangover morning. The most popular variety of these cute vegetables is due to ophiocordyceps unilateralis, although it is popularly known as ‘the fungus of zombie ants’. As those who have seen him in action know (whether in real life, whether in documentaries or photographs) his usual habitat is in the tropical jungles, and his modus operandi is just as distressing as the one shown by The Last of Us, although not quite the same.
After penetrating the exoskeleton of the carpenter ants, Its favorite victims, cordyceps manipulates their behavior, making them climb trees until they reach a favorable place for hatching. Once there, the fungus forces its host to bite hard into a tree leaf, fixing itself on it. This is when the most terrifying part of the process begins, with the insect’s head bursting from the inside to release a stalk that will proceed to expel even more spores. How deadly can cordyceps be to an ant colony? Let’s leave it at that, if the conditions for its germination are favorable (around 95% humidity and with a temperature between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius), a plague of this fungus can leave between 20 and 30 dead insects per square meter. Extrapolate that figure to a human population, and start shaking.
Should we fear mushrooms?
The popularity of cordyceps and its relatives (which can attack more species of insects and arthropods, as well as snails and other gastropods) skyrocketed in 2006 thanks to a documentary by david attenborough for the BBC. Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, The creators of The Last of Us have pointed out that this clip (belonging to a chapter of the Planet Earth series) was one of their main sources of inspiration for the game. Both the gruesomeness of the video and the plot of The Last of Us itself create the doubt that, at the moment, must be sprouting in the head of more than one: Is it possible for a cordyceps infestation to wipe out humanity? As much as the series takes that question for granted, pointing to global warming as a possible cause, an article on Cnet ensures that it is unlikely.
For starters, fungi like cordyceps need very specific temperatures to thrive, so the homeothermy of the human body is a powerful defense against them. However, climate change is increasing cases of mycosis around the world, from candidiasis to athlete’s foot, so it is better not to let your guard down in this regard. On the other hand, fungi of the cordyceps family are very specialized organisms that parasitize a single type of animal. In this way, the appearance of a variety capable of affecting us would depend on a process as long-term as evolution. And even if such a strain did emerge, it would still have to deal with our immune system. As the cases of hospital mycosis prove, fungal infections are extremely dangerous in patients with low defenses.
An apocalypse without zombies, but with hunger
The creators of The Last of Us are aware of all this, and have worked to make their plague more believable. Hence, for example, the mutant fungus does not reproduce in the series based on spores, but by propagating rhizomes and through the bite of the infected. Still, Cnet warns, the possibility of a fungus-related cataclysm is real, and very scary. Only this one wouldn’t look like a zombie apocalypse with clickers and bloaters roaming the devastated cities, but rather in more modest forms.
An infected by cordyceps in the series ‘The Last of Us’. HBO Max Without going any further, the great Irish famine (1845-1852) was caused by phytophora infestans, a fungus that destroyed potato crops. The result: a million dead and approximately as many emigrated from the Emerald Isle. If such a virulent plague affected one of the most important crops for world food (cereals, for example), humanity would find itself in a severe bind. Likewise, a new global pandemic could serve as a catalyst for potentially lethal fungal infections. During the proliferation of covid, for example, some seriously ill patients developed mucormycosis or ‘black fungus’, a fungal infection that was considered rare until then and is fatal in most cases. So, it is not yet the time to make bonfires with the trays of mushrooms from the supermarket, but we cannot go to sleep as if nothing had happened either. Of one thing, however, we can be sure: as much as some species of fungi do everything possible to kill us, they will not be able to do so without the help of our own stupidity as a species. Which, by now, should already be more than demonstrated. Do you want to be up-to-date with all the new movies and series? Sign up for our newsletter.