Last year, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us took the gaming world by storm. It tells a story of a man and a child journeying through a post-apocalyptic America, fighting off infected humans and scavengers along the way. The holocaust stems from a strange fungus that has caught humanity off guard. It infects the brain, slowly taking control of the host until it becomes a zombie, solely focused on spreading new spores until it dies. If you haven’t played The Last of Us, stop reading this blog and play it now. If you have, here’s a question: could The Last of Us happen in real life?
Take a look at the picture below. On close inspection you will find it is an ant—an ant that has erupted in fungus. You see, this ant has come in contact with ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a deadly parasite that lives in warm climates worldwide.
The story goes like this: a worker ant comes into contact with a spore. As the infection spreads, fungal cells invade the host’s brain. The ant begins to act strangely, no longer performing all his duties. Other ants soon notice this. Alarmed, a worker will drag the infected ant as far away from the colony as possible. Now completely under control of the fungus, the victim will climb beneath a low-hanging leaf and clutch it until he dies. Within days, the fungus will erupt through the ant’s head, growing out through the body of its host. The wind will catch its spores, which are carried over the forest to infect new insects.
The cordyceps fungus was the inspiration for The Last of Us. Known to infect hundreds of species worldwide, the fungus has been observed to take out entire colonies within days. Our question remains, though: could the cordyceps infect humans, and would the epidemic be as devastating?
According to Jake from Vsauce3 (click here for his amazing video), over 60 percent of modern diseases originated from animals, mostly those that live in close proximity to humans. Though people have little contact with cordyceps-prone ants, the animals we eat are invariably connected to them through the food chain. Looking at history, the suggestion that the fungus could evolve to affect humans isn’t too farfetched. As for the devastation it could wreak, the parasite in The Last of Us wiped out 60 percent of Earth’s population or approximately 4.25 billion people. While this number seems drastic when comparison with influenza (humanity’s most recent epidemic wiped out three to five percent of the population in a year), it’s worth noting the world has changed. Rapid, mass transportation could allow the fungus to traverse most of the planet within months. Though many governments and global organizations have plans in place to combat epidemics, it’s difficult to predict their effectiveness in face of a deadly sickness.
So could this happen in real life? Let’s keep our fingers crossed…and enjoy the greatness that is The Last of Us.
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Could we be The Last of Us?