January 30, 2023

Zombie fungus: Could ‘The Last of Us’ happen in real life?

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Zombies are recognizable by the fungus that erupts from their bodies: a bush of spiky tendrils, a small garden of mushroom-like fruiting bodies. These fungal parasites act as puppeteers, commanding the zombies and positioning them to infect entire communities.

That’s the basis of it.”The last of usA video game series and now a show on HBO, co-produced by CNN with parent company Warner Bros. Discovery shares, but it’s also a scenario that plays out in real life every day around the world.

The creators of “The Last of Us” have said they were inspired by him. A sequence in the BBC’s “Planet Earth”. Documentary series featuring an ant infected with a fungus that hijacks its brain, forcing it to climb a tree and dangle above the forest floor. There, the fungus digests the ant’s body from the inside and rains spores to spawn more zombies.

When “Planet Earth” came out in 2006, it was thought that the zombie ant fungus was part of the Cordyceps group, but Genetic studies It has since been placed in another insect parasitic fungus group, Ophiocordyceps.

Fungi in the Ophiocordyceps group, including Ophiocordyceps odonatae, which infected the dragonfly pictured here, each typically prey on a specific insect.

There are more than 100 known species of Ophiocordyceps that infect a wide variety of insects, including butterflies, moths and beetles, and at least 35 that perform “mind control” on their hosts.

“We only know about 35, but our estimates range from more than 600 species, which are waiting to be described,” said Joao Araujo, assistant curator of mycology at the New York Botanical Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany. .

Although zombie fungi are real and numerous, Araujo and others aren’t worried about being infected by Ophiocordyceps.

“They are extremely species-specific,” said Charissa de Becker, assistant professor in the Department of Biology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Each of the known species of Ophiocordyceps prey on a specific insect, and that specificity is a double-edged sword. “They have very sophisticated machinery to communicate with their hosts and do these really interesting things, like change behavior, but they can’t jump from one species to another,” says one organism. Leave as much as human-like distance, De Becker explained

Human immunity to Ophiocordyceps is evident from how many interactions with the fungus have so far proved harmless. People in some parts of Asia Use one species (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) in traditional medicine, and scientists who study fungi have not been impressed.

“I inhale Ophiocordyceps spores all the time because I work with them,” said Araujo, who is not a zombie.

While we may be safe from Ophiocordyceps, David Hughes, one of the scientists who consulted on the video game, said there is a lesson to be learned from “The Last of Us,” which is essentially a story about threats to humanity. There is a story.

“The biggest global threat is climate change,” said Hughes, who has shifted his research focus from zombie ants and now holds the Dorothy Fuhr Hook and Jay Lloyd Hook Chair in Global Food Security at Pennsylvania State University.

“The Last of Us” raises the point that climate change may promote fungal adaptations in warmer habitats. It is true. The infectious fungus Candida auriswhich was discovered in 2009 and has since been found in more than 30 countries.

In a warming world, fungi also have to adapt to warmer climates, de Becker said. “And then you can imagine, if their optimal growth temperature gets higher and closer to our body temperature, it might be more likely that in the future, we humans will have that. much more prone to fungal infections than what we’re seeing right now.”

A widespread fungal epidemic is unlikely, based on the fact that fungal infections in humans are unlikely, according to Demetrius Kontoens, MD, vice chair of the department of internal medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and director of its Medical Mycology Research Center. How do I spread?

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However, Kontoyiannis noted that fungal diseases are more difficult to treat than bacterial infections because fungi, like humans, are made of eukaryotic cells and share the same basic cell structure. That makes it very difficult to find a treatment “that targets the fungus and not humans,” he said.

Kontoiannis added that a warmer future with more fungal infections would put people with weakened immune systems at particular risk.

Hughes said he hopes those who engage with “The Last of Us” will see parallels to real-life challenges facing our world, including Climate change And New health risks who will support him. “This whole thing is a real-time study of what we pay attention to and what we act on,” he said.

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