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Zombie Fungus From HBO’s ‘Last Of Us’ Is A Real Parasite Found In Insects

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Zombie Fungus From HBO's Series 'Last Of Us' Is A Real Parasite Found In Insects

Zombie Fungus From HBO’s Series ‘Last Of Us’ Is A Real Parasite Found In Insects

Yes, the fungus is among us. The video game-inspired hit zombie apocalypse show “The Last of Us” draws its inspiration from our own reality and ecology: The show’s fatal fungus exists throughout nature.

The communicative zombie-inducing network of cordyceps — which have Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) fighting for their lives on the HBO Max series — is a real parasite that actually takes hold of and zombifies small insects, New York Botanical Garden parasitic fungi expert João Araújo told National Geographic.

Creator Neil Druckmann has said he was inspired to create the 2013 video game after watching a nature documentary about what real life cordyceps do to insects. “It’s this fungus that burrows its way into insects’ minds and completely alters their behavior,” he told NPR a decade ago.

“And you know, right away the idea popped in our head of like, ‘What if it jumped to humans?’ Cause you could imagine this fate worse than death, that your mind is still there but something else is controlling your body,” he continued.

Only a certain type of the cordyceps — known as Ophiocordyceps fungi — has the capabilities for a hostile takeover of a specific insect within the nearby environment. Out of the estimated 600 ophiocordyceps fungi, only 35 are known to have zombie-making abilities, per Araújo.

The parasite first causes erratic behavior inside of a host. Then, the fungus is believed to grow cells around the insect’s brain and nervous system, thus hijacking the ability to control a bug’s muscles, according to Ian Will, a fungal geneticist at the University of Central Florida.

Although all scientific signs point toward the ophiocordyceps fungi having virtually no impact on people — our 98.6-degree Fahrenheit body temperatures are too hot for them — Will admits that climate change is altering the nature of these spore-producing fungi.

“In a fantastical way, the logical links are there, but it’s not likely to happen in real life … If a jump from an ant species is hard, to jump to humans — that’s definitely sci-fi,” Will told National Geographic. “But this idea that temperature plays a role in fungal infections is certainly reasonable.”

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