Could a fungus cause the apocalypse? Georgia Gwinnett College biology professor breaks down the premise of HBO’s “The Last of Us”

Lee Kurtz
Dr. Lee Kurtz

Could a fungus be the last of us? That question is the premise of HBO’s critically acclaimed series “The Last of Us.” Based on the video game, the series follows an ominous, but hopeful tale of a small group of survivors along the lines of other recent post-apocalyptic dramas like “The Walking Dead,” “Sweet Tooth,” and “Station Eleven.” What sets “The Last of Us” apart is the seemingly terrifying plausibility of its plot. Set in 2023, events in the show take place 20 years into a global pandemic caused by a mass fungal infection, which causes people to transform into zombie-like creatures and collapses society.

The fictional fungus in the show is based on the Cordyceps, a genus of fungi that is parasitic on insects and other arthropods. In some insects, the fungus can grow a network of roots through the body and into the muscles, flooding the brain with chemicals that compel the host to go where conditions are perfect for the fungus to grow and release its spores. YouTube videos of this phenomenon have garnered millions of views in recent years and caused tidal waves of online speculation that a parasitic fungus could actually infect people and destroy humanity.

To a layperson it seems quite plausible, but according to an actual subject matter expert at Georgia Gwinnett College, we don’t need to start stocking up on food and fortifying our homes quite yet.

“Definitely not! Cordyceps could not grow in the human body, our internal temperature is too high for them to survive,” said Lee Kurtz, professor and chair of biological sciences at GGC. “The fungus can infect insects, most notably ants and caterpillars, spiders and more commonly other fungi.”

Kurtz confirmed that what Cordyceps can do to its host is astounding, but somewhat unusual.

“When they infect insects, they take control and force the insect to climb to a high spot so it can release its spores,” she explained. “But they’re not terribly common, especially when compared to other fungi like Aspergillus and Penicillium that are found in air.”

People might be interested to know that, even though they don’t have to worry about parasitic fungi turning them into zombies, other fungi can be found all over – and in the human body.

Some of them are welcome guests, others not, said Kurtz.

“Fungi are everywhere,” she said. “Fungi, mainly yeasts, can be found on our skin and in our gut. They play an important role in helping us maintain homeostasis. However, there are fungi that can cause infections if they can get access. They are generally opportunistic pathogens, not true pathogens. They don’t normally cause disease in humans, but if someone is immunocompromised or has an open wound, etcetera, they can take advantage of that access to cause disease.”

While “The Last of Us” might be doing to fungi what “Jaws” did to sharks in the collective consciousness, Kurtz wants people to know that they play an essential role in maintaining life on our planet.

“Fungi can live in dark, damp places — which most people know — but they also grow on drywall, ceiling tiles, even paint on air vents. We wouldn’t have plants without fungi in the soil. The fact is that they are critical to our ecosystem and can be found anywhere we look.”

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