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This is how the cordyceps mushroom from The Last of Us works. Does it exist in real life?


This is how the cordyceps mushroom from The Last of Us works. Does it exist in real life?

Yes, the parasitic virus that collapses human civilization into The Last of Us exists in our real worldbut you can breathe a sigh of relief because fortunately does not affect people… For now. The Naughty Dog video game, which recently released its acclaimed adaptation to serial format on the streaming platform HBO Maxits T inspired by a mushroom of fungal origin that could star in your worst nightmares: the cordyceps (also called cordyceps unilateralis).

how it really works this virus? to what species of the planet affects? What are your phases and consequences? If you have never known these data and you feel curious, then we are going to summarize it with hair and signs all you need to know of the cordyceps.

Cordyceps unilateralis in real life

In it first episode of The Last of Us series we went in its initial minutes to a television program in the year 1968. In it, several epidemiologists They discuss possible causes for the occurrence of a global pandemic of catastrophic dimensions. This prologue, which reminds many of us of what we have experienced recently due to COVID-19, is also a way of put on notice viewers for what will happen later in the story: the triggering of a fungus such as cordyceps in humans.

Cordyceps unilateralis is a parasitic fungus that mainly affects ants.

As one of the epimediologists warns, fungi like cordyceps are much more dangerous than any bacteria or virus existing. And in this case, the cordyceps is really aggressive.

Cordyceps is a genus of parasitic fungus which can affect hundreds of species, mainly insects. Specifically, The Last of Us takes inspiration from cordyceps unilateraliswhich is an ascomycete fungus of the Clavicipitaceae family capable of affecting ants, modifying their behavior after infect them to control them at will from the brain to kill them. This fungus is scientifically classified in the genus “Ophiocordyceps” and in total there are more than two dozen of their species that affect ants around the world, mainly in areas such as Florida, Brazil and Japan.

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The stages of cordyceps in ants


In our real world, as we have already mentioned, cordyceps attacks ants from the brain, turning them into a certain way. in “zombie ants”. There is evidence that C. Unilateralis has a preference for a specific host species: the ant camponotus leonardi (although it can parasitize other similar species, with less success in its control and reproduction).

The infection of cordyceps unilateralis lasts about 4 to 10 days in ants and goes through all these phases:

  • First, the spores of the fungus enter the body of the insect This probably happens through the cuticle through enzymatic activity.
  • Once inside the host, the fungus begins to consume non-vital tissues.
  • Little by little the fungus spreads through the body of the ant while it produces compounds that affect your brain and they change their behavior.
  • Through unknown mechanisms, the fungus from the brain causes the ant to leave the nest.
  • Immediately afterwards the insect scale by some plant or tree close to a leaf and using the jaws is fixed to the veins of the leaf with an unusual force.
  • After this the fungus proceeds to kill the host and continues to grow until its mycelium invades more soft tissue and structurally reinforces the ant’s exoskeleton.
  • In this process more mycelia come out of the ant and they anchor to the plant while secreting antimicrobials to eliminate competition.
  • Finally, when the fungus is ready to reproduce, its sporocarps grow from the head of the ant and open releasing spores.

How does cordyceps work in The Last of Us?

It is said that Naughty Dog originally took some inspiration from the cordyceps mushroom after seeing a documentary episode BBC Planet Earth titled “Jungles”from 2007.

In this program, narrated by the legendary Sir David Attenboroughwe are presented with a scene in which an ant is killed after suffering from infection ophiocordyceps unilateralis (a scene that almost becomes the introduction to the HBO series), along with a variety of other insects and spiders that are also affected by more species of fungi.

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Although as we have already said in real life the cordyceps does not affect humansthe series raises the possibility that the fungus has mutated due to global warmingwhile in the video game it is considered that this mutated due to a bacteriophage “virus” (a virus that infects and replicates within bacteria) and spread due to crops infected.

The four phases of infection

In this sense, the cordyceps in Naughty Dog’s work develops in humans in the next 4 phases or stages:

Stage 1 (Runners)

Stage 1 infection

The stage 1 starts two days after infection and the host is known under the term “Runner” (runner):

  • In this phase the human host loses his higher brain functionbecoming extremely aggressive and unable to reason or think rationally.
  • The infected have a high speed to chase prey, hence its name.
  • Despite everything, the fungus has not yet fully attached to the victim, and therefore the host maintains jerky and jerky movements.
  • As the initial infection grows, vision begins to blur and appear signs of skin lesions.

Stage 2 (Stalkers)

stage 2 infection

The stage 2 starts approximately between two weeks and the first year of infection. The host is known under the term “Stalker” (stalkers):

  • At this stage the fungus take complete control of the victim.
  • The fungus begins to greatly alter vision of the host as a result of its progressive growth in the brain and its visual cortex.
  • The first fungal plates (superficial skin mycoses, caused by filamentous fungi).
  • The guest can get to hibernate glued to the wall or hunt their victims with a one primitive form of echolocation that he develops to orient himself.

Stage 3 (Clickers)

Stage 3 infection

The stage 3 it happens per year of the infection and in this the infected is called Clicker (clicker):

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  • By then the guest already suffers total blindness due to the hardened fungal plates that completely cover their eyes (and also part of the body).
  • As they wander around using their echolocation, now more advanced by the passage of time, they make noises click-like characteristics.
  • At this stage the host also has more strength and it is more difficult to exterminate.

Stage 4 (Bloaters)

Stage 4 infection

The stage 4 takes place at ten years in case the host survives that long (which is unlikely). In this phase the infected person is known as “Bloater” (swollen):

  • The fungus has produced over a decade that the host’s body swell grotesquely.
  • Now the victim has developed hardened fungal plaques over most of his body.
  • At this stage, moreover, the body of the host generates mycotoxins that can throw prey to neutralize them.
  • They hold a enormous size and devastating force capable of annihilating its prey with its jaws in just a few seconds.

It should be noted that in The Last of Us when the fungus definitively kills the host, the host’s body develops fungal projections similar to stems that release infectious spores. Of course, cordyceps infection in humans can spread through bites to other living hosts. Although the fungus cannot infect a corpse due to its parasitic nature, infected dead can release spores regardless of their stage that will affect the living.

For all this, in the video game sometimes masks are used so as not to breathe in these spores. In the HBO series, at least for now, not specified that the infection is transmitted by spores in the air, however, it is very likely that the infection progresses in humans as we have been able to know in the video game.

Fortunately, the universe created by Naughty Dog it’s fictionY let’s hope it stays that way for many more years.

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