The HBO show, The Last of Us, has been in the news recently for several reasons, one of which is the fungal disease depicted in it. The show’s first episode features an epidemiologist describing a pandemic worse than the ones caused by viruses.
The epidemiologist says that a pandemic caused by fungi is the most dangerous. His reason – viruses cause illness, but fungi control minds. Is this for real? Is it possible for a mind-controlling fungal pandemic to happen?
Fungal infections on the rise
The hype over the fungal pandemic in the popular HBO series comes alongside recent reports of dangerous fungal infections surging. This rise in infection cases is reportedly happening because of rising temperatures. In addition, warming environments are causing mutations in some fungi species. As a result, fungi that used to be harmless have become potential pathogens as they adapt and evolve.
Fungi have become more resilient as they acclimatize to shifting environmental factors. They turn pathogenic as a form of defence mechanism. As such, it is important to use high-quality antifungal products to eliminate them lest they develop resistance. Toenail fungal infections, for example, should be treated with an effective fungal nail cream to destroy fungi down to their roots.
Increases in deaths due to fungal infections have also been reported. Health experts attribute them to weakened immune systems among those affected because of the pandemic and rising temperatures. There is no conclusive evidence linking them to new kinds of fungal diseases. Still, it is understandable for many to worry about the unusual rise of illnesses brought about by fungi.
Fact or fiction?
In The Last of Us, the pathogen that infects people and transforms them into monsters is based on real fungi from the genus Ophiocordyceps. These fungi are known to infect insects, but there are no recorded cases of human infection. However, the show presents the idea that the pathogen mutated because of rising temperatures. Thus, they gain the ability to infect humans.
This heat-driven mutation or evolution can be linked to a real study. A research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences presents evidence of fungal evolution due to higher temperatures. They undergo biological changes to survive in their changing environments.
The study focused on a type of Cryptococcus fungi. Based on DNA sequencing, the researchers found that the studied fungi exhibit increased ‘jumping genes’ activity. This reaction to stressors like rising temperatures allow them to adapt and become stronger. In the process, they also become more deadly.
To answer the question posited in the title, The Last of Us fungal pandemic remains fictional. There are no real-world cases similar to it. There have been reports of surges in fungal infections, and deaths from deadly fungal infections have also risen. However, no known fungi can infect humans and turn them into menacing zombies. It may take centuries of evolution for something similar to happen, or it may never happen at all.