‘The Last Of Us’, based on the award-winning PlayStation video game series, is one of the hottest TV series right now, with each new episode anticipated by millions every week. The series depicts a post-apocalyptic world where society has collapsed due to the outbreak of a dangerous, brain-controlling fungal infection that turns humans into hostile, cannibalistic “zombies”.
The Last of Us imagines a world ruined by a fungal apocalypse caused by a creepy, mind-controlling fungus known as Cordyceps which infects insects. Insects infected with Cordyceps have little control of their actions as the fungus takes over their nervous system, before eventually growing out of their bodies. But is it actually possible in the real world?
For Norman Van Rhijn, a mycologist researching fungal infections at the University of Manchester, the answer is “yes,” according to Insider.
“I think we underestimate fungal infections at our peril,” Dr Neil Stone, leading fungal expert at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London, tells BBC. “We’ve already done that for too long and we are completely unprepared for dealing with a fungal pandemic.”
The fungal kingdom is enormous – with an estimated three million different species worldwide. Most fungi like colder temperatures which is one reason why most fungal infections in humans tend to stay on the skin where it’s cooler. It’s also why only a small number of fungi are able to cause infections in humans relative to the size of the fungal kingdom.
But a few species of fungi grow in warmer temperatures – and these are the ones that cause life-threatening infections. Some fungi, such as Candida yeast, can even live in our gut as part of the microbiome, and can escape into the blood and organs when we become ill with serious conditions.
“The potential is huge for what can emerge and become a pathogen,” Tom Chiller, chief of the fungal disease branch of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Insider. “I am not going to be surprised that more fungi emerge as human pathogens that become more challenging to treat and more infectious.”
But even if a fungus is able to adapt and grow at warmer temperatures, it’s still unlikely it will spread through a population the same way a virus might. Regardless, the number of people becoming ill with a serious fungal infection has been steadily rising over the last half century. This is concerning as we’re much less able to treat fungal infections compared to other types of infections because we have fewer antifungals.
Fungi might not turn us all into zombies, but they can cause far more problems than a bit of Athlete’s foot. It’s clear more attention needs to be given to the potential dangers of fungi before it’s too late.