Last of Us Zombie Fungus Is Real, Just Not for Humans

Ants and other insects are indeed susceptible to a gruesome fate
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 30, 2023 1:47 PM CST
Updated Feb 4, 2023 6:30 AM CST
Last of Us Zombie Fungus Is Real, Just Not for Humans
This video game image released by Sony/Naughty Dog shows a scene from "The Last of Us." The popular TV show of the same name is based on the game.   (AP Photo/Sony/Naughty Dog, file)

The premise of the popular HBO series The Last of Us—based on a video game of the same name—is that humans get infected by a fungus that turns them into zombies. The good news, of course, is that no such fungus exists, notes NPR. The bad news is that it's not as far from reality as you might think. Welcome to the world of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, also known as zombie-ant fungus for its ability to, yes, infect ants and other insects and take over their bodies. In fact, CNN reports that the show's creators have said they were inspired by a particularly grisly scene in a Planet Earth documentary documenting this process.

It shows "an ant infected with a fungus that hijacks its brain, forcing it to climb a tree and dangle above the forest floor," per CNN. "There, the fungus digests the ant's body from the inside out and unleashes a shower of spores to create more zombies." Fortunately, the fungus does not have a similar effect on humans, and variations of it are even used in health supplements, notes the Washington Post. Biology professor Bryn Dentinger of the University of Utah tells NPR that one reason humans are safe is that the fungus cannot withstand our warmer temperatures. Of course, it's theoretically possible that a fungus with mind-altering qualities could emerge someday, especially as the world's temperatures warm.

"That may be one reason why we're seeing more fungal infections in humans, but again, to date, none of them are cordyceps," he says. "However, maybe that will happen in the future, but, at the moment, that is not a possibility." Matthew Fisher of Imperial College London sounds a similar note in a post at "While the (show's) scenario is unlikely, it is grounded in biology," he says. In the meantime, roughly 200 million people around the world are coping with life-threatening—if non-zombie-generating—fungal diseases, per the post. (More fungus stories.)

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