A Scientific Investigation of ‘The Last of Us’ Fungal Pandemic – CNET (Disease X)

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https://www.cnet.com/science/biology/features/a-scientific-investigation-of-the-last-of-us-fungal-pandemic/

Director Craig Mazin certainly has a type, at least when it comes to prestige TV shows. His 2019 series, Chernobyl, was a masterful series dramatizing the 1986 nuclear reactor meltdown at the eponymous power plant. It won a ton of critical praise and racked up a few Emmys, too. But at CNET Science we were most interested in how closely Mazin and co. were able to stick to the real-world nuclear science. The team, we think, did an amazing job of capturing the grim reality of the meltdown and its long-lasting effects.

Mazin’s next HBO outing is The Last of Us, based on the 2013 survival-horror video game of the same name. CNET’s own Sean Keane has described the show, which debuted in January, as “the greatest video game adaptation ever made.”

The Last of Us imagines a world ravaged by a fungal apocalypse caused by a creepy, mind-controlling fungus known as Cordyceps. That fungus is real, so I’ve naturally been wondering just how likely a fungi apocalypse really is. See what I mean when I say Mazin has a type?

The idea has been investigated in the context of the game many times, but HBO’s version of the Cordyceps brain infection is slightly different to the one game developer Naughty Dog first conjured in 2013.

What follows is an investigation of the plausibility of a fungal pandemic, caused by a Cordyceps-like pathogen that changes human behavior. I’m going to assume you’re at least somewhat familiar with the story of Joel and Ellie, the two protagonists making their way across the ruins of a post-apocalyptic USA. I’m also going to say at the top that this is an examination of a fictional world, so there’s always wiggle room for the story to develop in unexpected ways.

It’s not meant to be a medical document, so keep that in mind and if you’re really not interested in the underlying real world inspiration for a fungal pandemic and just want to see Pedro and Bella cook (I’m looking at you, Andy Greenwald), this might not be for you.

The real world inspiration for The Last of Us
You can blame David Attenborough and nature documentaries for the shambling, clicking horrors that haunt The Last of Us.

In a must-watch episode on jungles in the 2006 BBC series Planet Earth, Attenborough and his documentary team encounter various behavior-manipulating fungi, including one that parasitizes carpenter ants: Ophiocordyceps. In the clip, which has been viewed on YouTube over 10 million times, the camera lingers on an ant with its jaws wrapped around a tree branch. A ghostly violin plays as Attenborough narrates the scene.

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

The Planet Earth scene inspired Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, the director and creative director respectively, on 2013’s The Last of Us. In a GamesBeat interview after the game’s release, Druckmann mentions “ripping off” the documentary and Straley says that zombie ants were the “jumping off point” for the game. And the game does hew closely to its real-world source material.

The life cycle of Ophiocordyceps is gruesome but beautiful. Ants that come into contact with Ophiocordyceps spores on the jungle floor become infected. The fungus slips inside the ant’s body and begins to replicate. It takes up residence in particular regions, like the brain and muscle, releasing chemical compounds to manipulate behavior of the ant. The ant is directed to the underside of a leaf, high above the ground, and bites into it. Its jaw locks around the leaf thanks to some clever fungal compounds and it stays there until the fruiting body erupts from its head. Eventually it bursts open and releases more spores to the ground.

The process is highly specific. One species of Ophiocordyceps typically infects and zombifies just one species of ant. This specificity extends to the way the fungus takes over the mind of its host. A 2014 paper explored the ant-fungus relationship, finding that Ophiocordyceps had evolved a particular set of compounds to influence behavior of one species of ant, but those same compounds did not alter the behavior of different ant species (though the fungus will still often kill those ants).

Our real-world understanding of the fungus has also changed since The Last of Us was released in 2013.

The Planet Earth documentary was released in 2006. At the time, the ant-infecting parasite was, scientifically, known as Cordyceps unilateralis. In 2007, many of the Cordyceps fungi that parasitize insects, including ants but also things like caterpillars and spiders, were reclassified into a different family of fungi — Ophiocordyceps. While The Last of Us uses these two words interchangeably, they are now classed as different genera of fungi and scientists still use Cordyceps as a kind of generic name for all the species.

The Last of Us timeline
The pandemic’s origins are not revealed in the video game beyond a few stray newspaper clippings and notes, which seem to point to a South American origin. HBO’s adaptation dives a little further into the backstory, specifically in episodes 2 and 3. This gives us a little more to work with in terms of real world plausibility.

Here’s the timeline, as we understand it.

On the morning of Sept. 23, 2003, a woman working at a flour and grain factory on the western side of Jakarta was bitten by an unknown human being. She became violent, attacked four coworkers, biting three of them, before being locked in a bathroom and shot in the skull.

The three coworkers who were bitten were executed a few hours later. Fourteen coworkers could not be located.

A day later, on Sept. 24, 2003, two police officers in Jakarta, Indonesia walk into a restaurant and interrupt Ms. Ratna, a professor of mycology at the University of Indonesia, as she’s eating lunch. They take her to a laboratory at the Ministry of Health where she looks down a microscope and identifies a fungus: Ophiocordyceps.

(Depending on the species Ratna saw, the fungus would have likely been classed as a Cordyceps in 2003… a potential plot hole or pedantry?)

Ratna asks why it’s been stained with chlorazol — which is commonly used to identify fungal elements from human hair, nails or other specimens. “Cordyceps cannot survive in humans,” she tells the police officer. She then examines the corpse of the woman who worked at the flour and grain factory. She cuts open the bite wound on the woman’s leg and rummages around in her mouth, discovering the corpse has been colonized by Ophiocordyceps.

After making her discovery, she makes a recommendation: The officer should bomb the city and everyone in it.

On Sept. 26, 2003, the outbreak hits the US. This is dubbed Outbreak Day. In Austin, Texas, the first indications of trouble are obvious as ambulances screech through the city at around 3:15 p.m.

Ratna’s warning was prescient. In episode 3, we learn the fungus was able to spread around the world rapidly because it “got into the food supply.”

In the early hours of Sept. 27, the outbreak reaches critical mass and the streets become chaotic. Planes are crashing into the ground. Highways out of Austin become blocked by the military. Members of the public have, against the advice of the emergency broadcast system, fled their homes.

By Monday, Sept. 29, Joel explains to Ellie, “everything was gone.”




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