The Last Of Us Episode 2: How Cordyceps is leading the Internet's new fascination with fungus

Ayaan Paul
Ayaan PaulJan 24, 2023 | 16:48

The Last Of Us Episode 2: How Cordyceps is leading the Internet's new fascination with fungus

The global fungal outbreak as depicted in HBO’s The Last of Us paints a frightening fictional picture of a real-life fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis or simply Cordyceps. Following Joel and Ellie’s first real tryst with the infected, here’s a look at the science behind the beguiling Cordyceps fungus. 

Episode Two of HBO’s adaptation of the award-winning post-apocalyptic videogame has had the Internet fascinated (and terrified) by the prospects of a potential fungal outbreak. 

In another disturbing prelude, the second episode opens in Jakarta, Indonesia, exploring a possible ‘Patient Zero’ (the first person to be infected in an outbreak).

The top mycologist in Indonesia receives a strange call for assistance, which turns out to be a visit to a freshly infected Cordyceps victim who supposedly got out of control in a flour factory. The ‘flour-spreader’ confirmation comes after a flurry of fan theories that arose after the pilot, in which it was noted that Joel and Sarah avoided anything made with flour while their subsequently infected neighbours enjoyed their pancakes, blissfully unaware of their plight.

It doesn’t take long for the professor of mycology to admit defeat after examining the situation with the Cordyceps outbreak. Her chilling declaration to bomb the city with everyone still in it is a telling assessment of the magnitude of the fungal threat.

In The Last of Us, the Cordyceps fungus is portrayed as a highly virulent pathogen that causes a rapidly progressive infection in humans. The series has so far depicted three stages of infection, each with its own set of symptoms.

The first stage is the Runner stage, in which the individual's infection has progressed to the point where they are no longer capable of rational thought. They become highly aggressive and will attack anyone they come into contact with. The fungus is depicted as causing physical changes in the host, such as enlarged pupils, discoloration of the skin, and the growth of fungal structures in the oral cavity.

A Runner in HBO's The Last Of Us

The second stage is the Stalker stage, in which have individual's have the vision and speed of runners, with the ferocity of clickers. They can also attach themselves to walls to allow the fungus to fester until an unsuspecting victim walks past them. Once that happens, a Stalker breaks free from the wall and pounces on their prey.

A Stalker in HBO's The Last Of Us

The third stage is the Clicker stage, in which the individual's infection has progressed to the point where they have lost the ability to see and rely on echolocation to navigate. They become even more aggressive and will attack anyone they come into contact with. The fungus is depicted as causing further physical changes in the host, such as the growth of fungal structures on the face and the loss of the ability to speak.

A Clicker in HBO's The Last Of Us

In the real world, the Cordyceps fungus is known for its parasitic relationship with the host ant, in which the fungus invades the ant's body and alters its behavior before ultimately killing the ant and releasing spores to infect other ants.

The life cycle of Cordyceps fungi begins with the release of spores from the dead ant host. These spores are dispersed by the wind or by other means and come into contact with an ant host, which has to be of a specific species. Once the spores have landed on an ant host, they will germinate and infect the ant host by penetrating the cuticle (the hard outer layer of an insect) and entering the host's body.

Once inside the host's body, the fungus will begin to grow and colonize the host's tissues, particularly the muscles and the brain. This process can take several days or even weeks, depending on the species of fungus and the species of the ant host.

An ant infected with the cordyceps fungus

After the host ant is infected, the fungus will start to manipulate the ant's behavior. In some species, the fungus will cause the ant to climb to a high location, such as the top of a blade of grass or the leaf of a tree, where the ant will die and release spores. In other species, the fungus may cause the ant to remain in one place where the fungus will grow out of the ant's head and release spores.

An ant infected with the cordyceps fungus

Once the host ant dies, the fungus will continue to grow and produce spores, which will be released and can infect other ants, starting the cycle again. Some species of Cordyceps fungi are specific to a certain species of ant, while others can infect multiple species.

In the series, the fungus has been adapted to infect humans, causing them to become aggressive and violent before ultimately dying. It works by colonizing the brain and nervous system, thereby altering brain function and causing changes in behavior. The fungus could also release chemicals that manipulate neurotransmitters in the brain, leading to changes in mood, perception, and behavior.

However, it is important to note that while Cordyceps unilateralis and other species of Cordyceps fungi have been studied for their potential medicinal properties, there is currently no scientific evidence to support the idea that they can infect or control the behavior of humans or any other mammals. The depiction of the Cordyceps fungus in The Last of Us is purely fictional and should not be taken as a factual representation of how the fungus behaves in the real world.

Fungi are a diverse group of organisms that have evolved to thrive in a wide range of environments. They are found in virtually every habitat on Earth, from the deep sea to the highest mountain peaks. Fungi are able to survive and thrive in these diverse environments due to several characteristics that make them incredibly versatile, clever, and sturdy organisms.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

One of the main reasons why fungi are so versatile is their ability to degrade a wide variety of organic compounds. Fungi have evolved a vast array of enzymes that can break down complex molecules such as cellulose, lignin, and complex sugars. This allows them to survive in environments where other organisms would struggle, such as rotting logs and compost piles.

Fungi are also incredibly clever organisms. They have developed a wide range of survival strategies, including mutualistic relationships with other organisms. For example, mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with the roots of plants, which provide the fungi with sugars and other nutrients in exchange for water and minerals. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Fungi are also incredibly sturdy organisms. They are able to survive in extreme environments, such as high temperatures, acidic soils, and high radiation levels. They can also survive long periods of drought or extreme cold by entering a dormant state and waiting for favorable conditions to return.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

While some fungi have been observed to produce psychoactive compounds, such as psilocybin and LSD, these compounds have been found to have a profound effect on the human mind, altering perception, thought and mood, but not changing the behavior of individuals. 

To learn more about how psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin are on the new frontier for psychotherapy, have a look at: Netflix docuseries How To Change Your Mind will change your mind about psychedelics (well, it should)

Though the worst is still ahead in Joel and Ellie's fungal encounters, the The Last Of Us has inadvertently spurned awareness and appreciation towards the wonderful world of fungi more than most nature documentaries ever could.

New episodes of HBO's The Last Of Us stream Monday's at 6:30 am IST on Disney+ Hotstar. 

Last updated: January 24, 2023 | 16:49
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