The Last of Us: What to know about Cordyceps and what do scientists say about it?

HBO’s The Last of Us series, released in 2023, based on the popular survival game of the same name, is a masterpiece from Craig Mazin. The limited series inclines on the lines of an apocalyptic world, where a deadly outbreak caused by the Cordyceps fungus is wreaking havoc. And when we say havoc, think of brain-eating microbes, zombies and more.

What’s even more gut-wrenching is that, although the series is adapted from a video game developed by Naughty Dog in 2013, the fungus, called Cordyceps, is very much real. So, naturally, the thought of what a fungal outbreak would be like has cropped up several times. However, the chances of it are quite impossible in real life but it is better to be abreast with the infection-causing monstrous microbe.

More about The Last of Us television show, Cordyceps fungus and what experts say

About The Last of Us

The last of us fungus- Cordyceps fungus
Image credit: The Last of Us/ IMDb

The Last of Us takes place in the 1960s, nearly two decades after a lethal fungal apocalypse that has almost wiped out modern civilisation. In such a scenario, Joel (Pedro Pascal), a string survivor, is hired to ‘smuggle’ Ellie (Bella Ramsey) from a harsh and cruel quarantine zone. What initially starts out as a simple rescue job begins to snowball into a brutal task as they both have to traverse through the US, and depend on each other for their best shot at surviving the fungal outbreak.

Right at the beginning of The Last of Us, a speech by epidemiologist Dr Neuman (John Hannah) on the horrors of the microbe sets the stage for what’s going to come. He says, “If the world were to get slightly warmer, then there is reason to evolve.” Speaking about the Cordyceps’ ability to infect minds and turn people into living dead corpses, he says, “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.”

The series premiered on 15 January and two episodes have rolled out.

What is cordyceps fungus?

The last of us fungus- About Cordyceps fungus
Image credit: The Last of Us/Photo by Liane Hentscher/ IMDb

The Last of Us fungus Cordyceps exists in the real world, but whether it can take such a devastating role is a bleak possibility. It is a “genus of parasitic fungi that grows on the larvae of insects,” says Healthline.

When it attacks the host insect, the Cordyceps fungus eliminates its soft tissues and grows long slender stems that grow outside the host’s body. It essentially feeds on the minds of the insects as it is shown to do to humans in The Last of Us television show.

As per a Sky News report, Dr Mark Ramsdale, a molecular microbiology professor at the MRC Centre for Medical Mycology says that there are nearly 600 species of this fungus and adds, “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.”

The fungus generally enters the insect’s body through spores, which also protect it and help it reproduce.

Where is the Cordyceps fungus found and what does it do?

The fungus is predominantly found in tropical forest regions. After entering the host’s body, the fungus manipulates its behaviour and guides the insect towards more humid and marshy areas. Here, it finds favourable conditions to grow and feed on the insect’s body as well as release new spores.

Uses of Cordyceps

While it is true that the fungus has proven to be lethal for insects, it has little to no adverse effects on humans. In fact, Healthline states that Cordyceps has a lot of benefits and is used in traditional Chinese medicine to “treat fatigue, sickness, kidney disease and low sex drive.”

One of its major health benefits for humans is believed to be a catalytic role to promote the body’s production molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP). It is thought to enhance the way the body uses oxygen, especially during rigorous exercises.

It is also believed to have antioxidants with anti-ageing properties. Cordyceps’ supposed potential to reduce the growth of tumours has also piqued interest in recent times.

The Healthline report states, “in test-tube studies, Cordyceps have been shown to inhibit the growth of many types of human cancer cells, including lung, colon, skin and liver cancers.” It is also believed to have anti-inflammatory effects on humans.

The fungus shown in The Last of Us may also help to keep Type 2 diabetes under check, plus it may aid in lowering cholesterol levels and keeping heart diseases at bay.

Side effects and recommended dosage

The last of us fungus- uses of Cordyceps fungus
Image credit: Alexander Gray/ @sharonmccutcheon/ Unsplash

There is very little research conducted or tested on humans with the Cordyceps fungus. As a result, there is hardly any consensus or medically recommended doses or treatments available. The Cordyceps supplements available also use synthetically grown variants of the fungus as it is extremely expensive and difficult to cultivate.

Hence, it is always advised to consult a doctor before taking any medications or doses of the fungus. Side effects on humans, too, remain largely unknown.

Watch The Last of Us here

(Main image credit: The Last of Us/ IMDb; Featured image credit: The Last of Us/Photo by Liane Hentscher/ IMDb)

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