The Last of Us has been causing a stir on the internet since HBO aired the TV series. The premiere had 4.7 million views on Sunday, and by Monday, 10 million people had seen the pilot episode. 

The Last of Us is a TV series directed by Craig Mazin (Chernobyl), based on the 2013 survival-horror video game. The Last of Us takes place in a world that has been ravaged and dominated by a mind-controlling fungus known as Cordyceps, which transforms humankind into bloodthirsty zombies. 

The TV series begins with a flashback of two infectious disease scientists debating the likelihood of worldwide pandemics with a TV journalist. One of them observes a cordyceps fungus that can take over the body of an insect but cannot exist at human body temperature, however, if the earth “warms up a few degrees,” the fungus survival will demand adaptation. What if it does? “We lose,” he decides in such a case.

Everything about The Last of Us appears to be thrilling and intriguing. Now, what if I told you that this TV series isn’t all that distant from reality?

Understanding The Last of Us Science

Is the cordyceps virus real?

The short answer is yes, it is extremely real. Cordyceps is classified as fungi that include about 600 species. 

In the case of the fungus behind The Last of Us Science, first and foremost, we must comprehend the motive: How did they come up with this concept? Why did they choose this fungus? 

The makers of the original video game saw a documentary by David Attenborough, where a phenomenon happened, the phenomenon was ants being taken over by the fungus producing ‘zombie ant’. 

When the fungus infects an ant, it spreads throughout its body, sucking nutrients and taking control of the ant. Eventually, the infection will keep getting worse, the fungi will have subdued the ant sufficiently for her to leave her safe refuge and seek an optimal and very specific zone for the fungus to propagate, a plant stem at a height of 25 centimeters, a zone with the proper temperature and humidity. 

It leads the ant to lock its mandible around a stem. The fungus will develop into a long stalk through the ant’s head, full of spores after the ant dies. Because the ant usually climbs a leaf that overhangs the foraging pathways of its colony, the fungus spores shower down on its companions below, infecting them also.

Even though in the TV series the fungus is spread by bites, the real fungus is spread by spores. In the video game, you could get infected by both, the spore development is the final step of the infected’s life cycle. The decomposing corpse acts as a breeding site for the fungus, allowing it to spread throughout the surroundings. 

The spores were replaced with tendrils in the TV series, which also plays a very important part. As Joel said in episode 2, “If you step on a patch of cordyceps in one place, and you can wake a dozen infected from somewhere else,”.

What does cordyceps do to the brain?

In The Last of Us Science, once infected with cordyceps, the fungus takes control of the host mind, leading it to lose memories, feelings, resemblances, or even the ability to fight, expanding the brain outwards, literally becoming a “puppet with poisoned mind,” as mentioned by the scientist at the beginning of the premiere episode. 

Of course, in fiction, things happen much faster, in minutes or hours. In nature, things take more time. In the case of the ‘zombie ant,’ for example, the complete process of infection, control, death, and spread could take days, weeks, or even months.

Specialists discovered that the cordyceps does not target the ant’s brain to transform it into a zombie: it instead preserves the brain while ripping chaos elsewhere. They believe the fungus emits substances that can attach to or interact with receptors or other types of proteins associated with the nervous system, resulting in a variety of behaviors throughout the host’s body. 

Fungus illustrations ready to use

In our gallery, many species of fungus are available to all users. And if you can find specifically what you need, you can also request a custom illustration to use in your designs, like the zombie ant, for example. Subscribe now and start creating amazing fungus infographics.

Could it happen in real life?

This is unlikely to happen, but it may, with a slew of limitations. Climate change and how the fungus reproduces are two crucial story elements that support the fungal epidemic in the TV adaptation of The Last of Us.

Therefore, for this to happen in the real world, it would need some fungus adaptation as well as climatic changes, as seen in The Last of Us. Humans can be infected by fungi, and there could be a fungus outbreak or pandemic, but a zombie-kind is unimaginable.

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