‘The Last of Us’ zombie infection is real – here’s what scientists say about the threat to humans

‘The Last of Us’ zombie infection is real – here’s what scientists say about the threat to humans

‘The Last of Us’ zombie infection is real – here’s what scientists say about the threat to humans


HBO’s highly anticipated television adaptation of the famous The last of us The game series premiered on Sunday, showcasing the world after a devastating fungal pandemic wiped out most of humanity, a fictional brain infection that experts say is inspired by a very real set of fungi that can hijack their hosts and turn them into zombies.


The last of us is set in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by hordes of “infected”, aggressive, zombified humans who have contracted a parasitic fungal infection – the brain infection of cordyceps – which keeps its hosts alive, transforming their bodies as ‘it grows inside them and causes them to bite others to transmit the infection.

The infection is inspired by a real group of fungi, often dubbed “zombie fungus”, that target insects and grow through the host’s body. In some cases, it can precisely control its host’s behavior to spread the infection.

João Araújo, assistant curator and mycology researcher at the New York Botanical Garden, said Forbes it is “highly unlikely” that such a leap could occur given the vast differences between human and insect biology.

They are “not ready to invade, settle inside and transmit spores from a human body,” Araújo said, adding that they have parasitized insects for more than 130 million years and “cannot even establish in mammals or non-insect animals”.

David Hughes, Penn State food safety professor, director of PlantVillage, and zombie fungus expert who first consulted The last of us game, said Forbes it’s ‘not so fanciful’ to imagine an infection spreading to humans – animal diseases often pass to humans – but said a zombie fungus would ‘undoubtedly’ lose its mind control powers in the process.

It just won’t have the “tools to go and manipulate our brains,” explained Charissa de Bekker, a parasitic fungi expert and assistant professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, noting that most zombie fungi infect a very limited range of insects, often a single species, which is possible after millions of years evolving side by side.

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The first episode of HBO The last of us was released on Sunday. The nine-episode series, starring Bella Ramsey as Ellie and Pedro Pascal as Joel, is an adaptation of the game series of the same name. The first game, released in 2013 by the Naughty Dog studio, is one of the most beloved and decorated games in history, as well as a commercial success. Since its release, it has been remastered, remade and spawned a sequel, The Last of Us Part II. Although based on a game, viewers don’t need to have played the game to follow or enjoy the show and it would be a faithful adaptation, albeit with some significant differences.


Although praising the way The last of us depicts parasitic fungi in the games and the show, experts have pointed to a number of areas where the fiction deviates from reality. De Bekker said it was great that the infected were portrayed as living beings – rather than the less natural “undead” commonly deployed in the zombie genre – but their aggressive behavior is not in line with what infected insects. These insects will usually be forced to climb to a position that provides optimal spore dispersal to maximize the chance of infecting others. This aggressive behavior is likely inspired by rabies, de Bekker said, which is transmitted through bites and promotes aggression in hosts. Araújo said it was a “pity” that the fungal spores were removed from the series, a decision according to showmakers was made to avoid actors having to wear obstructive gas masks for much of series. Spores, which are a crucial part of games, “are the most important means of reproduction in fungi” and one of the most interesting aspects of their life cycle, Araújo said.


In games and show, cordyceps invade the host’s brain. This is a major shift from what happens in nature, where zombie mushrooms actually avoid the brain and manipulate behavior with chemical signals, Hughes said. This discovery was made quite recently and after the release of the first game.

To monitor

A multiplayer The last of us The game is in the works, Naughty Dog has confirmed, and more details are expected in 2023. Currently, details are scarce, although a small amount of concept art has been released. Studio head Neil Druckmann said the game has been in the works since before The Last of Us Part II launched in 2020 and is the studio’s “most ambitious project” to date. Although unconfirmed, fans widely expect Naughty Dog to announce a third title in the game’s mainline series in the future and Druckmann has openly stated that he thinks there are “more ‘story to tell’.

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Further reading

How the Zombie Mushroom Takes Over Ants’ Bodies to Control Their Minds (Atlantic)

Scientists discover how to grow zombie mushrooms in a lab – it could help unlock new anti-virus and cancer drugs (Forbes)

How zombies can help prevent the next pandemic (Scientific American)

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