Cordyceps infected insect

Cordyceps infected insect.

How Real Is ‘The Last of Us’? UCSF Fungus Expert Weighs In

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

The blockbuster HBO show, The Last of Us, uses an intriguing premise to explain the world’s post-apocalyptic setting: Ophiocordyceps unilateralis — aka the “zombie-ant fungus” — has jumped from insects to humans.

The fungus takes over a host’s body with spores that compel the host to seek opportunities to expel the spores and infect others, which compels those hosts to spread the spores to others, and so on, and so on.

So how realistic is this scenario? According to Anita Sil, professor at the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UCSF, not very.

“It’s extremely, extremely unlikely for the premise of the show to be true in the sense that, you know, I very strongly doubt that Ophiocordyceps make a jump from insect species to mammals,” Sil told us in the latest episode of the Synapse podcast.

Nevertheless, Sil gets a kick out of the heightened attention fungi are getting.

“The great thing about having fungi in popular culture,” she said, “is it just raises our consciousness about these organisms in general, and some of the wonderful and terrible things that that they can do.”

The reality is that fungal disease epidemics are not completely out of the realm of possibility.

“There’s actually an outbreak right now of a fungus called Blastomyces in some sort of processing plant in Michigan,” Sil said. “All of a sudden, everybody in a facility is inhaling large quantities of those fungal spores and then getting infected. So that’s a really serious situation.”

So how concerned should we be? And could you defend against possible infection?

Find out on our podcast episode, “How Real Is ‘The Last of Us’? UCSF Fungus Expert Weighs In.”