The parasitic mushroom from “The Last of Us” is real, but can it create zombies?

ATTENTION: The text contains spoilers from the first episode of the series.

The series “The Last of Us: The Last Survivors” opens with a scene from the studio of the TV show from the 1960s.

There, an epidemiologist (John Hannah from “The Mummy”) expresses the opinion that the real threat to humanity is not viruses and bacteria, but fungi. It explains that some parasitic species can enter the body of certain insects and then control them.

He then warns – if these fungi mutate to be able to survive in a human body, we may be next.

What do they need for this evolution? Perhaps a “slightly warmer” climate.

Whoever watched the first episode of “The Last of Us: The Last Survivors” knows what happens 40 years later, and whoever didn’t – spoiler – the mushrooms have really evolved and within days lead humanity to a zombie apocalypse.

This begs the question: is it possible for this to actually happen?

Mushrooms are real

Photo: iStock

The body of a fly infected and killed by a cordyceps fungus.

To begin with, in the series – and in the game of the same name on which it is based – at the heart of the pandemic is a mutation of a genus of fungi called cordyceps, also known as crab leg or crab leg. In fact, it is completely real and there are over 300 known species of it worldwide, most of them in Southeast Asia.

But they don’t create zombies, do they? They don’t create. Actually… not people.

Cordyceps can cause zombie-like symptoms in the insects it “infects.” Different species of the fungus specialize in infecting a particular type of insect. For example, there is one that infects moth caterpillars.

The spores of the fungus induce excited behavior in insects, seemingly taking control of their minds and motor functions. Hence the comparisons with zombies, the “Washington Post” points out.

Eventually, the fungus kills its host and something resembling a tentacle grows from its remains. When it develops, it releases new spores that infect other insects around.

The process is covered in an episode of the BBC series Planet Earth. It is among the inspirations of Neil Druckman, the writer of the game The Last of Us, to base the story on a pandemic of the spread of the fungus among people.

In the clip below, you can see how a fungus infects an ant’s body and disorients it. When the rest of the colony finds an infected ant, they carry it away for their own safety.

And there is a reason – in the clip you can also see the growth of the mushroom itself from the dead ant’s body. This growth may take 3 weeks, after which spores are dispersed, capable of wiping out entire colonies.

Can it happen to humans?

No. Take it easy.

In the real world, cordyceps don’t turn people into zombies. In fact, the mushroom is also used as a medicinal agent and finds a place in various Chinese medicine supplements, for example, because of its supposed benefits to human health. In other words, people consumed it without then going to bite their loved ones.

And what does Craig Mazin, screenwriter of the series, who is also behind the hit “Chernobyl” say on the matter?

“It’s true as far as everything he[the epidemiologist in the series]says that mushrooms do. They do it now and they always have,” Mazin told The Hollywood Reporter.

He points out that there are notable documentaries on the subject that are also quite “terrifying” (the clip above confirms that, doesn’t it?).

“This caveat – what if they evolve and enter us – from a purely scientific point of view, will they do to us what they do to ants? I don’t think so. I doubt it,” reassures the screenwriter.

In the series, the mushrooms are spread to humans through a bite.Photo: HBO Max

In the series, the mushrooms are spread to humans through a bite.

As for the method of infection, in the game The Last of Us it happens through spores, as traditionally spread by cordyceps mushrooms.

In the HBO series, however, the infection is transmitted through a bite, as in most zombie stories. Such a way of transferring a fungal infection does not sound so impossible, as long as the condition for the spores of the fungus to penetrate the victim’s body is met.

Neil Druckman says the decision to leave the spores out of the show was because The Last of Us characters would too often wear masks, which would hide the actors’ faces and muffle their voices .

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The lurking threat

Craig Mazin doesn’t let us rest completely, though. He shared how working on the show’s opening scene reminded him of another concern he had while filming the Chernobyl series – that at any moment there could be a catastrophe.

“I shuddered at that [ядрената централа в Чернобил] it blew up that night, but it could have happened a week earlier or even a month earlier. It means that right now, somewhere out there, there’s something else waiting to explode – we just don’t know about it,” adds the writer and director.

Very comforting Craig… We only forgive you because your new series is also a-mazin-g.

The first episode of “The Last of Us: The last survivors” can be watched on the streaming platform HBO Max.


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