Is ‘The Final of Us’ Fungal Pandemic Attainable? A Scientific Investigation

Again in 2019, Craig Mazin and HBO launched Chernobyl, a masterful collection dramatizing the 1986 nuclear reactor meltdown on the eponymous energy plant. The TV present earned essential reward and a few Emmys however at Science we had been most enthusiastic about how intently Mazin and co. had been in a position to follow real-world science. Seems, they did a very good job.

Mazin’s subsequent HBO outing is The Final of Us, primarily based on the 2013 survival-horror online game of the identical title.’s personal Sean Keane has described the present, which debuted on Sunday, as “the best online game adaptation ever made.”

The Final of Us imagines a world ravaged by a fungal apocalypse attributable to a creepy, mind-controlling fungus generally known as Cordyceps. That fungus is actual, so I’ve naturally been questioning simply how possible a fungi apocalypse actually is. 

The concept has been investigated within the context of the sport many instances, however HBO’s model of the Cordyceps mind an infection is barely totally different to the one sport developer Naughty Canine first conjured in 2013. 

What follows is an investigation of the plausibility of a fungal pandemic, attributable to a Cordyceps-like pathogen that adjustments human conduct. I will assume you are a minimum of considerably acquainted with the story of Joel and Ellie, the 2 protagonists making their approach throughout the ruins of a post-apocalyptic USA. I am additionally going to say on the prime that that is an examination of a fictional world, so there’s all the time wiggle room for the story to develop in sudden methods.

This consists of some gentle spoilers from episodes 2 and three of The Final of Us, so in case you’re attempting to maintain your viewing expertise spoiler-free, it is time so that you can bail. 


The true world inspiration for The Final of Us

You possibly can blame David Attenborough and nature documentaries for the shambling, clicking horrors that hang-out The Final of Us.

In a must-watch episode on jungles within the 2006 BBC collection Planet Earth, Attenborough and his documentary staff encounter varied behavior-manipulating fungi, together with one which parasitizes carpenter ants: Ophiocordyceps. In the clip, which has been seen on YouTube over 10 million instances, the digicam lingers on an ant with its jaws wrapped round a tree department. A ghostly violin performs as Attenborough narrates the scene.

“Like one thing out of science fiction, the fruiting physique of Cordyceps erupts from the ant’s head,” he says. 

The Planet Earth scene impressed Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, the director and artistic director respectively, on 2013’s The Final of Us. In a GamesBeat interview after the sport’s launch, Druckmann mentions “ripping off” the documentary and Straley says that zombie ants had been the “leaping off level” for the sport. And the sport does hew intently to its real-world supply materials.

The life cycle of Ophiocordyceps is ugly however stunning. Ants that come into contact with Ophiocordyceps spores on the jungle ground develop into contaminated. The fungus slips contained in the ant’s physique and begins to copy. It takes up residence particularly areas, just like the mind and muscle, releasing chemical compounds to govern conduct of the ant. The ant is directed to the underside of a leaf, excessive above the bottom, and bites into it. Its jaw locks across the leaf because of some intelligent fungal compounds and it stays there till the fruiting physique erupts from its head. Finally it bursts open and releases extra spores to the bottom.

The method is extremely particular. One species of Ophiocordyceps sometimes infects and zombifies only one species of ant. This specificity extends to the best way the fungus takes over the thoughts of its host. A 2014 paper explored the ant-fungus relationship, discovering that Ophiocordyceps had advanced a selected set of compounds to affect conduct of 1 species of ant, however those self same compounds didn’t alter the conduct of various ant species (although the fungus will nonetheless typically kill these ants).

Our real-world understanding of the fungus has additionally modified since The Final of Us was launched in 2013.

The Planet Earth documentary was launched in 2006. On the time, the ant-infecting parasite was, scientifically, generally known as Cordyceps unilateralis. In 2007, most of the Cordyceps fungi that parasitize bugs, together with ants but in addition issues like caterpillars and spiders, had been reclassified into a special household of fungi — Ophiocordyceps. Whereas The Final of Us makes use of these two phrases interchangeably, they’re now classed as totally different genera of fungi and scientists nonetheless use Cordyceps as a form of generic title for all of the species.

The Final of Us timeline

The pandemic’s origins usually are not revealed within the online game past just a few stray newspaper clippings and notes, which appear to level to a South American origin. HBO’s adaptation dives a little bit additional into the backstory, particularly in episodes 2 and three. This provides us a little bit extra to work with when it comes to actual world plausibility.

This is the timeline, as we perceive it.

On the morning of Sept. 23, 2003, a lady working at a flour and grain manufacturing unit on the western facet of Jakarta was bitten by an unknown human being. She turned violent, attacked 4 coworkers, biting three of them, earlier than being locked in a toilet and shot within the cranium.

The three coworkers who had been bitten had been executed just a few hours later. Fourteen coworkers couldn’t be situated.

A day later, on Sept. 24, 2003, two cops in Jakarta, Indonesia stroll right into a restaurant and interrupt Ibu Ratna, a professor of mycology on the College of Indonesia, as she’s consuming lunch. They take her to a laboratory on the Ministry of Well being the place she seems down a microscope and identifies a fungus: Ophiocordyceps. 

(Relying on the species Ratna noticed, the fungus would have possible been classed as a Cordyceps in 2003… a possible plot gap or pedantry?)

Ratna asks why it has been stained with chlorazol — which is usually used to determine fungal parts from human hair, nails or different specimens. “Cordyceps can not survive in people,” she tells the police officer. She then examines the corpse of the girl who labored on the flour and grain manufacturing unit. She cuts open the chew wound on the girl’s leg and rummages round in her mouth, discovering the corpse has been colonized by Ophiocordyceps.

After making her discovery, she makes a suggestion: The officer ought to bomb town and everybody in it. 

On Sept. 26, 2003, the outbreak hits the US. That is dubbed Outbreak Day. In Austin, Texas, the primary indications of bother are apparent as ambulances screech by town at round 3:15 p.m. 

Within the early hours of Sept. 27, the outbreak reaches essential mass and the streets develop into chaotic. Planes are crashing into the bottom. Highways out of Austin develop into blocked by the army. Members of the general public have, in opposition to the recommendation of the emergency broadcast system, fled their properties. 

By Monday, Sept. 29, Joel explains to Ellie, “all the things was gone.”

Ellie sits in room with grass on the floor as Tess talks to her in The Last of Us.

In The Final of Us, humanity tries to select itself up twenty years after a mutant Cordyceps fungus kickstarts a pandemic.


So, may it occur?

The brief reply is: It is unbelievable. The longer reply? Possibly, however with a ton of caveats

There are two key plot units that underpin the fungal pandemic within the TV model of The Final of Us — local weather change and the way the fungi reproduce.

The Final of Us units up its first season with an interview phase that takes place in 1968. Two fictional researchers are discussing pandemics on a chat present. One among them, Dr. Neumann, says he isn’t fearful of micro organism or viruses kickstarting a pandemic, in contrast to the opposite visitor. What scares him most is fungi. Principally as a result of they do not simply kill the host, however take it over. 

The viewers laughs (and after the previous three years, you would possibly too). Then 35 years later within the fictional world, that is precisely what occurs.

In the actual world, scientists have typically questioned why bugs, crops and amphibians are so prone to fungal illnesses. Analysis has proven that regulating physique temperature, or homeothermy, is a good barrier in opposition to fungal an infection. Fungi thrive in cooler environments and that is why they’re potent enemies of bugs, amphibians and crops. It additionally means they don’t seem to be as massive a hazard to hot-blooded animals, like ourselves. Fungi even have to have the ability to take up human tissue, which they principally battle to do, and even when they handle to invade us, they nonetheless should take care of a sturdy human immune system.

People can be contaminated by fungi, although. Candida, a yeast which causes thrush, is a potent species. A multidrug-resistant species, Candida auris, is of main concern in hospitals. There are additionally molds, which trigger athlete’s foot and ringworm. Typically, these fungi evade our defenses, particularly these of us with compromised immune programs. 

“The one factor you need to bear in mind with fungal infections is that they predominantly infect folks with an underlying situation,” Julianne Djordjevic, an affiliate professor on the College of Sydney who research fungal an infection of people, tells

Issues are altering, although. The world, ours and the one in The Final of Us, is heating up. “What if, for example, the world had been to get barely hotter?” the fictional Dr. Neumann asks within the premiere. Larger temperatures may see fungi slowly adapt and evolve to face up to the kinds of warmth they could expertise inside a human physique. Some scientists imagine that is why Candida infections is likely to be on the rise

One other species generally known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis, discovered on the Tibetan plateau, offers a possible counter. The species has lengthy been utilized in Chinese language drugs and among the compounds it creates have been studied for his or her anti-cancer properties. Nevertheless, in 2018, mycologists confirmed local weather change — along with overharvesting — was resulting in a decline within the species. The Himalayas are significantly weak because the world warms and, a minimum of for this species, adaptation and evolution aren’t retaining tempo. Maybe we’re warming the world too rapidly for fungi to adapt.

Spores and tendrils

However how does Cordyceps unfold? And so quick? As an ascomycetes, or sac fungi, the Ophiocordyceps that inhabit Earth’s temperate jungles propagate and survive by spores. It is a part of their life cycle: infect an ant, take it over, create a fruiting physique, launch the spores, begin once more.

HBO’s adaptation makes one enormous change from the online game: spores aren’t the best way Cordyceps strikes between folks. Mazin has mentioned that is principally as a result of spores would imply everyone must put on a masks on a regular basis (I am unsure that is significantly true however it will be fairly clunky in a TV present). However, the difference replaces spores with “tendrils” and bites from contaminated folks, two issues we’ve not seen as infectious brokers in the actual world. They’re additionally affected by proximity. Whereas spores can journey a whole lot of miles, tendrils and bites want shut contact.

That is the hardest a part of this pandemic to sq., however The Final of Us tries to supply a inventive resolution as to how society collapsed. 

Joel wearing a gas masks punches an Infected in a dimly lit room. Torchlight provides a silhouette of the Infected against a green and white wall.

Within the online game, Joel and Ellie typically don gasoline masks in areas of dense Cordyceps spores.

Naughty Canine

Early within the collection, as Joel and Ellie are wandering by the wreckage of civilization, Joel briefly touches on the accepted narrative of the pandemic’s origins: Cordyceps mutated. Then the fungi received into the meals provide — issues like bread, sugar and cereal all carried the mutated pressure — and that meals provide was shuttled across the globe. 

There may be precedent for this type of factor. The Nice Famine, which ravaged Eire within the 1840s and 1850s, was attributable to an organism just like a fungus, generally known as Phytophthora infestans, destroying potato crops. Although it did not straight infect and kill (or “thoughts management”) people, it reveals we’re a minimum of prone to fungi in ways in which don’t get a lot consideration.

However the tendrils are nonetheless an issue for plausibility, even when their benefits for contaminated group are partially defined in an early episode.

“The fungus additionally grows underground,” Tess, one other survivor who companions with Joel, explains to Ellie in an early episode. “Lengthy fibers like wires, a few of them stretching over a mile. You step on a patch of Cordyceps in a single place and you may wake a dozen contaminated from elsewhere.” This connection may alert contaminated to uninfected and make it close to inconceivable to keep away from them, however within the early phases of the pandemic it will take some extraordinarily inept authorities responses to really take off.

Possibly not so unlikely, given what we find out about the latest pandemics.

Nevertheless, this variation would require a serious evolutionary deviation for Ophiocordyceps. Offered the Cordyceps that Ibu Ratna sees down her microscope and the Cordyceps in the actual world are essentially the identical, it will imply the fungus has essentially modified on a genetic degree to one thing fully alien. It could even be uncommon for these fungi to then be in meals crops until these crops are extremely contaminated with ants or spiders or moths. 

Overcoming these challenges we nonetheless should get to a spot the place the fungus can management the conduct of a human being. Whereas fungal compounds can alter the human thoughts (suppose LSD, for example, which was remoted from a rye fungus), the precise compounds required to make people extra aggressive and assist unfold the an infection would require a miraculous evolutionary leap for Ophiocordyceps.

There’s simply quite a lot of challenges for a mutated fungus to beat. Maybe these will likely be defined in a second season.

a cordyceps infected wasp species with two yellow, budding stalks protruding from its back

At any time when I see an insect with Ophiocordyceps stalks protruding from its exoskeleton I feel, rattling… Nature is steel.

Kevin Schafer/Getty Pictures

Ought to we fear about fungal pandemics?

Just about each main crop that humanity is dependent upon is threatened by a fungal pathogen. Rice, wheat and maize signify the largest and most vital supply of energy for the human inhabitants. If a fungal pandemic had been to tear by the crop provide… properly, it may not be as horrifying because the bitey, thoughts managed “zombies” of The Final of Us, but it surely might be devastating another way.

What’s regarding researchers at the moment is the rise of fungi that are immune to antifungal medication. Based on a paper printed within the journal Science in 2018, crop-destroying fungi accounts for about one fifth of perennial yield losses. They write that “[t]o keep away from a worldwide collapse in our means to regulate fungal infections,” we have to promote the invention of recent antifungal medication and guarantee our present use of pesticides and chemical compounds do not give rise to extra worrisome strains. 

One other consideration? A twin pandemic — one which lowers the immunity of people to such some extent that pathogenic fungi can take maintain.

Contemplate COVID-19. In the course of the peak of the pandemic, sufferers with COVID-19 had been typically presenting with fungal illnesses. Researchers investigated instances of “mucormycosis,” which is attributable to black fungus, in 18 nations in 2022, writing that it is an understudied and poorly understood complication of extreme COVID-19. It appeared to have an effect on males greater than females and was predisposed to these with diabetes, an underlying situation that may have an effect on immunity.

Whereas it is one of many freakiest apocalypse situations and makes good fodder for sci-fi TV, Cordyceps is unlikely to scale back humanity’s numbers by the billion. However the enemy is on the market and we must be ready. Proper now, we’re not.

Up to date Jan. 18: Closed captions make it clear the physician originally of the present is Dr. Neuman, not Dr. Newman. We have modified the spelling on this piece.   

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