The Last Of Us landed last week and the timing seemed perfect. Having just passed through a two-and-a-half-year pandemic, with all sorts of questions starting to find their way into the mainstream over vaccine efficacy, harms, and the wisdom of lockdowns , everyone could be forgiven for being a little hypersensitive.

That doesn’t stop the 24 hour, rolling disaster porn peddling news media. In between toppling politicians they don’t like, they are telling us we have to freeze to death in our homes so Net Zero can stop us dying due to climate change. These sorts of messages are starting to fail to cut through in an increasingly cynical world.

Emergency

So they are looking for other doomsday topics to fill their airwaves and column inches. The Last Of Us gave Sky News in the UK something else to talk about, as they breathlessly asked:

“Could the next public health crisis be caused by a fungus?”

The science behind this, though, is actually really interesting. The show begins with a 60s-set prologue, featuring a scientist played by John Hannah talking about fungus, and how:

“Candida, ergot, cordyceps, aspergillus: any one of them could be capable of burrowing into our brains and taking control of not millions of us, but billions.”

As anyone familiar with the games and the show knows, this is exactly what happens. It’s also not quite as far fetched as it seems. According to Professor Elaine Bignell, a world leader in the field of human fungal pathogen research that Sky tapped up for their article:

“There are already fungi inhabiting the brains of human beings all over the planet. A number of fungi species are quite prominent pathogens and kill hundreds of thousands of people every year – it’s just that the public is not aware.”

Last year the WHO (remember them?) put out a list of health-threatening fungi. This is distressing news. Even the mushrooms want to kill us?

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We’re Doomed!

They talk about Aspergillus fumigatus, a common mould that is widespread in homes everywhere and can cause deadly lung disease.

Candida species, which causes thrush and ringworm, also causes bloodstream infection in intensive care patients in hospitals, while Cryptococcosis neoformans kills more than 100,000 people a year in sub-Saharan Africa.

So what about the one in The Last Of Us that takes over people and turns them into brainless monsters – cordyceps? Yes, it is absolutely real and it is a parasitic fungus that infects and takes over the mind of insects.

According to Dr Mark Ramsdale, a professor in molecular microbiology at the MRC Centre for Medical Mycology, there are about 600 different types.

“They are predominantly insect pathogens. It’s their insect host that they manipulate and change their behaviour. And so from that perspective, there is some basis there.”

It is found in tropical forests and penetrates the host via spores, which are released to allow a fungus to reproduce and defend itself. The fungus then alters the hosts behaviour, making the host seek out more humid locations to help it grow, before feeding on the remains and launching new spores from the corpse. Freaky!

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A fly infected by a cordyceps fungus – Alejandro Santillana/University of Texas

Wouldn’t you know it, it’s the damn Chinese taking all the risks again, as they use cordyceps in treatments and therapeutics in Chinese medicine. There’s a reason the zombie outbreak in the novel World War Z starts in China!

We’re Not Doomed!

According to the article Sky News put out, there are 150,000 identified species of fungi in the world, but millions more exist and are completely unidentified. The good news is that, with an internal temperature of 37C and all sorts of chemical reactions taking place inside us, the human body is actually a pretty inhospitable place for quite a few things that aren’t supposed to be in there.

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Ramsdale continues:

“There’s a long history of relationships between humans and this particular group, there’s no evidence they’re causing disease in humans. However, in terms of their insect relationships, they do manipulate their hosts – and several fungi have evolved this capacity over time.”

However this is a major news organisation, so nothing nature based can be discussed without the big topic sledgehammering its way into proceedings – climate change. Ramsdale again:

“It changes the selection pressures that are put on those huge, diverse life forms, perhaps some could potentially make that transition from one lifestyle to another and become pathogenic in a context that we haven’t thought of before.”

Climate change. It was always going to find its way into this sort of conversation.

On the unique look of the infected in The Last Of Us, they have more in common with sufferers of ultra-rare epidermodysplasia verruciformis, so-called Treeman Syndrome. Seemingly confined to developing countries for most of the 200 documented cases, patins with this condition have started cropping up in the United States.

He wants to get that looked at! Either way, it seems that despite the enthusiastic news headline Sky used for their article, it seems we are quite a long was from mushroom based Armageddon just yet. Still, somebody should probably let Oyinlola know that we aren’t quite there yet.

The second episode of The Last Of Us is available today on HBO, HBO Max and Sky Atlantic, including On Demand.

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