Image courtesy of Today

By Noah Slayter

This is an independently submitted op-ed for our Quill section. Views and statements made in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of  The Tower.

Ophiocordyceps: a species of fungi that parasitically attaches to an insect, controlling their brain zombie-style. The fungi-controlled insects then attempt to contaminate their fellow bugs. What would happen if this fungus decided to infect humans? This is what The Last of Us, a video game by creator Naughty Dog, imagines: a post-apocalyptic world where mycelium runs (literally) rampant attempting to infect every single human alive. Recently, a television adaptation has become popular on HBO and invited many viewers to question: is this reality possible?

The very concept of fungal-zombies was reportedly conceived when creative director Neil Druckmann watched a David Attenborough BBC Documentary called Planet Earth. The video shows a bullet ant becoming infected with an ophiocordyceps, climbing up into the rainforest canopy, and then sprouting a fungal protrusion from its head.

Video courtesy of BBC

The video calls the fungi “cordycep,” which is technically a broader term of multiple fungi. The specific name is ophiocordyceps, though the game refers to both terms..   Over 100 species of ophiocordyceps exist, 35 of which turn insects into zombies.  “‘We only know 35, but our estimates range to more than 600 species, waiting to be described,’” said an mycology expert at the New York Botanical Garden to CNN.  

The main interaction between humans and cordyceps, besides in laboratory experiments, is traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine. Supposed uses include treatment for aging, cancer, diabetic kidney disease, and erectile dysfunction

Viagra of the Himalayas” is a $50,000  mushroom from the butt of a caterpillar.  Cordyceps sinensis, otherwise known as “caterpillar mushroom,” is an ophiocordyceps which infests the body of a ghost moth caterpillar. An NPR report on the fungi said “‘This caterpillar will bury itself down a couple inches into the soil. Meanwhile, it doesn’t know it, but this fungus is digesting it from within and then in the spring this…tissue erupts out the head.’” Yartsa gunbu, as it is known in Tibet, is the most expensive fungi in the world. 

So, basically, if an infection were to exist in humans, it would likely occur because some rich guy used a shroomed caterpillar for a fun night out. 

There is a danger in certain types of fungi becoming resistant to our limited arsenal of antifungal drugs. For example, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) references “aspergillus,” as a type of mold that has become resistant to certain drugs. Another example is ringworm, a topical fungus that grows on human skin, hair, and nails. The continual exposure of the fungi to these drugs creates resistance to them.

In reality, fungi rarely cause issues for humans, as reported by Scientific American: “most species of fungi cannot survive the high temperatures of a warm-blooded body.” That is partly why cordyceps only infect insects. Most likely a fever would kill the fungus before it ever got to our brain. 

So could The Last of Us come true? It’s extremely unlikely, but the possibility is out there.

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