The scariest exhibits and flicks are sometimes those rooted in actuality — about psychopathic serial killers, late-night house invasions, and AI robotic dolls. Zombie apocalypses usually don’t depend.

However a brand new present on HBO, referred to as The Final of Us, presents a compelling case that maybe there’s such a factor as a sensible zombie. Or realistic-ish. And it’s undoubtedly scary.

The premise of the present, which is predicated on the favored online game of the identical title, isn’t that totally different out of your typical post-apocalyptic horror story: US cities are crumbling, there are rabid people in all places, and a manly man has to guard a younger woman as they journey throughout the nation.

The zombies, nevertheless, are really impressed. Extra particularly, they’re impressed by nature — by actual zombies that reside on Earth.

Pedro Pascal, of The Mandalorian and Narcos, stars in HBO’s The Final of US as Joel Miller, the lead protagonist.
Liane Hentscher/HBO

Within the present, which premiered final Sunday, it’s not a virus that turns folks into brainless automatons however a type of fungus referred to as Cordyceps. The fungus takes over their minds and our bodies and makes them need to unfold the fungus to the uninfected.

This fungus is actual.

In tropical, subtropical, and even temperate forests all over the world, there are lots of species of fungus within the genuses Cordyceps and Ophiocordyceps (these fungi had been previously referred to as simply Cordyceps) that infect bugs like ants and different invertebrates. They usually do basically flip them into zombies. The fungi take over their minds and our bodies, inflicting them to behave in such a means as to unfold spores to others of their type.

The fungi had been popularized in 2016 by the present Planet Earth, which captured an Ophiocordyceps parasitizing a bullet ant. And it was truly the clip beneath — through which the fungus causes the ant to climb up a department, earlier than killing it and sprouting a spore-producing mushroom from the ant’s head — that impressed the sport’s creator, Neil Druckmann.

So, the fungus is actual and it will probably flip bugs into zombies. That’s fairly rad. However does it pose a risk to us?

A comforting reality is that folks have been consuming Cordyceps for hundreds of years now with out turning rabid. It’s a standard Chinese language medication, used to deal with kidney illness and different illnesses. Even wellness manufacturers at the moment are advertising and marketing it.

However to make sure — as a result of one actually can’t make sure sufficient, proper? — I reached out to Charissa de Bekker, a mycologist who researches Ophiocordyceps. A professor of biology at Utrecht College within the Netherlands, de Bekker has not seen the present however is accustomed to the sport. Our dialog has been edited for size and readability.

To be clear, the fungus within the present The Final of Us is actual, proper?

Sure. Cordyceps and Ophiocordyceps fungi are actual and infect bugs within the wild. There are lots of totally different species on the market.

Many!? What number of?

Researchers have described a minimum of 30 Ophiocordyceps species that parasitize ants, however we all know there are lots of extra, as a result of each ant species that will get contaminated has its personal specialised Ophiocordyceps species.

There are additionally Ophiocordyceps and Cordyceps fungi that infect different bugs like wasps and flies. We additionally see this transcend bugs to arthropods like spiders. Then there’s a complete different group of fungi, within the order Entomophthorales, that does manipulation as nicely — and these species don’t look something like Ophiocordyceps.

Manipulation has developed a number of occasions throughout the fungi kingdom. The biodiversity of those fungi might be actually excessive, we simply haven’t found all of them but.

A kind of Cordyceps fungus rising on a bullet ant close to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, Costa Rica.
Kevin Wells/Getty Photographs

One other type of “zombie” fungus grows out of a lifeless winged insect in a rainforest in Vietnam.
Quang Nguyen Vinh/Getty Photographs

How do these fungi manipulate their hosts within the wild?

What we see, particularly with ants, is that they decide up spores [which are kind of like seeds for fungus] after they exit to forage for meals. The spore infects the ant and fungal cells begin rising inside its physique.

At first, this ant may act usually. However ultimately, it stops taking part within the foraging efforts of the colony. It doesn’t talk nicely with its nest-mates anymore.

After which this ant begins to turn into hyperactive and not has the identical day by day rhythms of the opposite ants. Most carpenter ants, for instance, forage in the course of the nighttime, however the contaminated ant mainly turns into energetic on a regular basis.

A “zombie” fungus sprouts a fruiting physique (mushroom) out of an ant in Indonesia.
Reza Saputra/Getty Photographs

At one level, the contaminated ant wanders off from the colony to discover a spot within the forest to climb and chunk [down on the twig or vine]. That is the place the fungus will rapidly begin to devour all the pieces inside, which kills the host. The fungus makes use of that vitality to sprout a inventory with a fruiting physique — the mushroom, if you’ll — which has spores that can fly out and infect extra ants.

By climbing greater up within the forest, the ant mainly helps the fungus unfold its spores. The precise spot it chooses to climb may very well assist with the event of the fungus.

This entire course of may take days or even weeks, and even months. What you usually see in zombie films, or The Final of Us, issues occur lots faster. In nature, issues take a while.

Are Ophiocordyceps truly controlling the minds of ants?

We expect this fungus is secreting sure chemical substances that may bind to or work together with receptors or different kinds of proteins which are associated to the nervous system, and usually give rise to totally different behaviors. For example, these might be receptors that usually would bind to dopamine or serotonin, that may then elicit a sure kind of habits. We’re nonetheless very a lot within the technique of making an attempt to determine that out.

We definitely suppose it’s extra than simply this fungus gnawing away on some mind tissue as a result of the habits is so particular.

A zombie is plastered to the wall by the Cordyceps fungus in Episode 1 of The Final of Us.
Liane Hentscher/HBO

Would you name these contaminated hosts “zombies”? Is that scientifically correct?

Should you examine it one-to-one with zombies from popular culture, it’s not utterly correct. These bugs are very a lot alive, whereas in fictional films zombies are sometimes undead. These ants contaminated with Ophiocordyceps will not be lifeless and strolling round.

What makes real-life hosts much like fictional zombies is that they’re behaving in such a means as to learn the parasite, not the host.

Is there any purpose to consider {that a} fungus like this might infect a human physique and switch us into zombies?

The very quick reply is: No.

Every little thing within the human physique is so totally different from the bugs that these fungi usually infect, together with our physiology, our nervous tissue, and our physique temperature. Even when the fungi had been capable of trigger a small an infection, the equipment that’s wanted for the fungus to do such a exact manipulation is solely not there.

These fungi developed methods to control particular insect hosts over tens of millions and tens of millions of years. They’re not generalists. Every species solely is aware of learn how to cope with one specific insect.

We don’t see the fungi specialists simply leaping from one ant species to a different, not to mention from an ant species to a different insect. Spreading from ant to human is simply such an enormous bounce.

Within the present, a fictional epidemiologist means that local weather change may make dangerous fungi extra tolerant to hotter temperatures. Because of this, they may extra readily bounce to warm-blooded people. Is that an actual concern?

That’s truly a actual concern that medical mycologists have [about harmful fungi like Candida auris, not Cordyceps], although that’s not my experience.

Most fungal infections are pores and skin infections — or if, say, you’re an immunocompromised affected person, sure spores that usually are benign may settle in your lungs and trigger an issue. However most fungi don’t fortunately develop at our physique temperature. Most of them truly desire decrease temperatures.

Some experimentation exhibits that fungi may, maybe, adapt to greater temperatures, as they adapt to a warming world. You possibly can think about that if their optimum temperature comes nearer to our physique temperature, fungal infections may turn into extra of an issue.

Within the present, the fungus spreads via bites, not spores. That’s not how it might truly work if these fungi-infected zombies had been actual, proper?

Should you play the sport, you’ll see that spores do play a job in spreading an infection. However no, the fungus wouldn’t unfold via biting. Typically, throughout the fungal kingdom, going from one spot to a different, or from one host to a different, is completed by spores.

I’m an enormous fan of fungi. They decompose crops, they are often psychedelic. They’re additionally scrumptious. Is it unfair that Cordyceps are the villain within the present?

It’s nice that, lastly, fungi are hip and occurring. I hope the present sparks some curiosity in fungi generally, as a result of they’re extremely fascinating organisms. They’re extra vital than folks may suppose.

A Cordyceps fungus grows out of a wingless insect on a leaf in Ecuador.
Luis Espin/Getty Photographs

They’re very a lot the villain within the present, and that’s usually how we see parasites, as a result of they make us sick. However in nature, they’re truly tremendous vital and simply as vital as all the opposite organisms.

They preserve all the pieces in test. If ants, as an illustration, weren’t pestered by sure parasites — not simply Ophiocordyceps however anything that makes them sick — then their numbers may get uncontrolled. You may get an overpopulation of sure species. Taking out a parasite like this fungus is perhaps like taking out a predator from the ecosystem, and that would trigger biodiversity to say no.

I’m type of afraid to ask, however how widespread are fungi, generally?

To not scare you, however in each breath of air you are taking there shall be fungal spores. Most of them will not be dangerous to us — most spores you’re inhaling proper now are benign, or fungi that don’t know learn how to cope with our physique, so you’ll by no means even discover them. However they’re in all places.

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