Warning: This story contains spoilers for the series premiere of The Last of Us. Read at your own risk!
If you tuned into Sunday night’s premiere of The Last of Us on Crave, you might have had a hard time sleeping. Not only was the episode full of explosive twists (um, can we talk about *that* shooting incident?) and gripping special effects (that airplane scene alone…), but the pandemic storyline also hit close to home.
Just as the world unexpectedly shut down for a period in March 2020 due to the coronavirus, the cordyceps fungus in The Last of Us came fast and furious. In Texas, we specifically saw how it affected Joel (Pedro Pascal) and his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker), with devastating results.
While we’re sure to learn more about how the fungus took effect and what kind of damage it inflicts as the rest of the season unrolls, we had some questions about this scientific twist and what it means. Read on to learn everything you need to know about the cordyceps fungus and how it actually hangs out in the real world.
What is the cordyceps fungus?
Also known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis or zombie-ant fungus, the cordyceps fungus is at the center of the apocalyptic event that changes Earth as we know it in The Last of Us. In real life, the fungus was discovered in the mid-1800s and tends to hang out in tropical forest ecosystems.
According to National Geographic, the fungus is all about self-propagation and dispersal, and it is believed to infect foraging ants through spores that attach themselves to the exoskeleton and take over the insect’s behaviour.
Sounds creepy, right? Well, as the fungus grows, it forces the ant to attach itself to a leaf and then it eats the ant from the inside out. Eventually, the fungus fruits out through the ant’s head with spores that will infect new ants. If you want to watch a time-lapse video of the process, the BBC has you covered:
Gross, right? Just wait until we see what that process might look like in a human as the show continues.
Can the cordyceps fungus affect humans?
One of the reasons The Last of Us is such a popular video game is because it uses real science to set the stage for all of this terror. However, in real life, the cordyceps fungus can’t affect humans. Yes, there are iterations of cordyceps that humans use—mostly in modern day medicine. And yes, some of the fungi turn ants into zombies. It’s also worth noting that cordyceps ignota can infect tarantulas. However, humans are not among the known hosts.
In a flashback from the show’s premiere, scientists explain that a human’s body temperature is too low for the fungi to take hold. However, with global warming and viruses learning to “body jump,” it could one day be possible. Clearly, it became possible by the time the first episode ended, which is how we got here.
How does the cordyceps fungus work on the show?
Although there have been several iterations of this show in development over the past decade, this series coming at us post-pandemic feels especially relevant. Now, because the world, in general, is a lot savvier to pandemics and how quickly things can change, the showrunners wanted to tweak the fungus slightly from what was initially depicted in the 2013 video game.
In an interview with Collider, the team revealed they altered aspects of the fungus to make it scarier and maybe even more plausible. They changed it so it would no longer be transmitted through the air, and they even made the spores an interconnected system. As a result, those creepy, string-like spores can actually band together and take out people in their way.
In other words, this show is about to get a whole lot scarier. So if you were planning on having a fungi pizza or stuffed mushrooms for dinner next week, it may be time to rethink your menu.
The Last of Us streams Sundays on Crave.