Director Craig Mazin actually has a kind, a minimum of in the case of status TV exhibits. His 2019 collection, Chernobyl, was a masterful collection dramatizing the 1986 nuclear reactor meltdown on the eponymous energy plant. It gained a ton of vital reward and racked up a couple of Emmys, too. However at CNET Science we were most interested in how closely Mazin and co. were able to stick to the real-world nuclear science. The group, we expect, did a tremendous job of capturing the grim actuality of the meltdown and its long-lasting results.

Mazin’s subsequent HBO outing is The Final of Us, primarily based on the 2013 survival-horror video game of the identical identify. CNET’s personal Sean Keane has described the present, which debuted in January, as “the greatest video game adaptation ever made.” 

The Final of Us imagines a world ravaged by a fungal apocalypse attributable to a creepy, mind-controlling fungus often known as Cordyceps. That fungus is actual, so I’ve naturally been questioning simply how possible a fungi apocalypse actually is. See what I imply after I say Mazin has a kind?

The concept has been investigated within the context of the sport many instances, however HBO’s model of the Cordyceps mind an infection is barely totally different to the one recreation developer Naughty Canine first conjured in 2013. 

What follows is an investigation of the plausibility of a fungal pandemic, attributable to a Cordyceps-like pathogen that adjustments human conduct. I’ll assume you are a minimum of considerably accustomed to the story of Joel and Ellie, the 2 protagonists making their manner throughout the ruins of a post-apocalyptic USA. I am additionally going to say on the high that that is an examination of a fictional world, so there’s at all times wiggle room for the story to develop in sudden methods. 

It isn’t meant to be a medical doc, so preserve that in thoughts and for those who’re actually not within the underlying actual world inspiration for a fungal pandemic and simply need to see Pedro and Bella prepare dinner (I am you, Andy Greenwald), this won’t be for you.  

The true world inspiration for The Final of Us

You possibly can blame David Attenborough and nature documentaries for the shambling, clicking horrors that hang-out The Final of Us.

In a must-watch episode on jungles within the 2006 BBC collection Planet Earth, Attenborough and his documentary group encounter varied behavior-manipulating fungi, together with one which parasitizes carpenter ants: Ophiocordyceps. In the clip, which has been seen on YouTube over 10 million instances, the digicam lingers on an ant with its jaws wrapped round a tree department. A ghostly violin performs as Attenborough narrates the scene.

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

The Planet Earth scene impressed Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, the director and artistic director respectively, on 2013’s The Final of Us. In a GamesBeat interview after the sport’s launch, Druckmann mentions “ripping off” the documentary and Straley says that zombie ants had been the “leaping off level” for the sport. And the sport does hew carefully to its real-world supply materials.

The life cycle of Ophiocordyceps is ugly however lovely. Ants that come into contact with Ophiocordyceps spores on the jungle flooring turn out to be contaminated. The fungus slips contained in the ant’s physique and begins to duplicate. It takes up residence specifically areas, just like the mind and muscle, releasing chemical compounds to control conduct of the ant. The ant is directed to the underside of a leaf, excessive above the bottom, and bites into it. Its jaw locks across the leaf because of some intelligent fungal compounds and it stays there till the fruiting physique erupts from its head. Finally it bursts open and releases extra spores to the bottom.

The method is very particular. One species of Ophiocordyceps sometimes infects and zombifies only one species of ant. This specificity extends to the best way the fungus takes over the thoughts of its host. A 2014 paper explored the ant-fungus relationship, discovering that Ophiocordyceps had advanced a specific set of compounds to affect conduct of 1 species of ant, however those self same compounds didn’t alter the conduct of various ant species (although the fungus will nonetheless usually kill these ants).

Our real-world understanding of the fungus has additionally modified since The Final of Us was launched in 2013.

The Planet Earth documentary was launched in 2006. On the time, the ant-infecting parasite was, scientifically, often known as Cordyceps unilateralis. In 2007, most of the Cordyceps fungi that parasitize bugs, together with ants but additionally issues like caterpillars and spiders, had been reclassified into a unique household of fungi — Ophiocordyceps. Whereas The Final of Us makes use of these two phrases interchangeably, they’re now classed as totally different genera of fungi and scientists nonetheless use Cordyceps as a form of generic identify for all of the species.

The Final of Us timeline

The pandemic’s origins aren’t revealed within the online game past a couple of stray newspaper clippings and notes, which appear to level to a South American origin. HBO’s adaptation dives a little bit additional into the backstory, particularly in episodes 2 and three. This provides us a little bit extra to work with by way of actual world plausibility.

Here is the timeline, as we perceive it.

On the morning of Sept. 23, 2003, a girl working at a flour and grain manufacturing unit on the western facet of Jakarta was bitten by an unknown human being. She turned violent, attacked 4 coworkers, biting three of them, earlier than being locked in a toilet and shot within the cranium.

The three coworkers who had been bitten had been executed a couple of hours later. Fourteen coworkers couldn’t be situated.

A day later, on Sept. 24, 2003, two cops in Jakarta, Indonesia stroll right into a restaurant and interrupt Ms. Ratna, a professor of mycology on the College of Indonesia, as she’s consuming lunch. They take her to a laboratory on the Ministry of Well being the place she seems down a microscope and identifies a fungus: Ophiocordyceps. 

(Relying on the species Ratna noticed, the fungus would have possible been classed as a Cordyceps in 2003… a possible plot gap or pedantry?)

Ratna asks why it has been stained with chlorazol — which is usually used to determine fungal parts from human hair, nails or different specimens. “Cordyceps can’t survive in people,” she tells the police officer. She then examines the corpse of the lady who labored on the flour and grain manufacturing unit. She cuts open the chew wound on the lady’s leg and rummages round in her mouth, discovering the corpse has been colonized by Ophiocordyceps.

After making her discovery, she makes a suggestion: The officer ought to bomb town and everybody in it. 

On Sept. 26, 2003, the outbreak hits the US. That is dubbed Outbreak Day. In Austin, Texas, the primary indications of bother are apparent as ambulances screech by way of town at round 3:15 p.m. 

Ratna’s warning was prescient. In episode 3, we be taught the fungus was capable of unfold world wide quickly as a result of it “bought into the meals provide.” 

Within the early hours of Sept. 27, the outbreak reaches vital mass and the streets turn out to be chaotic. Planes are crashing into the bottom. Highways out of Austin turn out to be blocked by the army. Members of the general public have, in opposition to the recommendation of the emergency broadcast system, fled their houses. 

By Monday, Sept. 29, Joel explains to Ellie, “the whole lot was gone.”

Ellie sits in room with grass on the floor as Tess talks to her in The Last of Us.

In The Final of Us, humanity tries to choose itself up twenty years after a mutant Cordyceps fungus kickstarts a pandemic.


So, might it occur?

The quick reply is: It is unbelievable. The longer reply? Possibly, however with a ton of caveats

There are two key plot units that underpin the fungal pandemic within the TV model of The Final of Us — local weather change and the way the fungi reproduce.

The Final of Us units up its first season with an interview phase that takes place in 1968. Two fictional researchers are discussing pandemics on a chat present. Certainly one of them, Dr. Neumann, says he isn’t petrified of micro organism or viruses kickstarting a pandemic, in contrast to the opposite visitor. What scares him most is fungi. Largely as a result of they do not simply kill the host, however take it over. 

The viewers laughs (and after the previous three years, you would possibly too). Then 35 years later within the fictional world, that is precisely what occurs.

In the actual world, scientists have usually puzzled why bugs, vegetation and amphibians are so vulnerable to fungal ailments. Research has shown that regulating body temperature, or homeothermy, is a good barrier in opposition to fungal an infection. Fungi thrive in cooler environments and that is why they’re potent enemies of bugs, amphibians and vegetation. It additionally means they don’t seem to be as massive a hazard to hot-blooded animals, like ourselves. Fungi even have to have the ability to take in human tissue, which they largely battle to do, and even when they handle to invade us, they nonetheless need to take care of a sturdy human immune system.

People can be contaminated by fungi, although. Candida, a yeast which causes thrush, is a potent species. A multidrug-resistant species, Candida auris, is of main concern in hospitals. There are additionally molds, which trigger athlete’s foot and ringworm. Generally, these fungi evade our defenses, particularly these of us with compromised immune techniques. 

“The one factor you need to bear in mind with fungal infections is that they predominantly infect individuals with an underlying situation,” Julianne Djordjevic, an affiliate professor on the College of Sydney who research fungal an infection of people, tells CNET.

Issues are altering, although. The world, ours and the one in The Final of Us, is heating up. “What if, as an illustration, the world had been to get barely hotter?” the fictional Dr. Neumann asks within the premiere. Greater temperatures might see fungi slowly adapt and evolve to face up to the varieties of warmth they could expertise inside a human physique. Some scientists imagine this is why Candida infections might be on the rise

One other species often known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis, discovered on the Tibetan plateau, supplies a possible counter. The species has lengthy been utilized in Chinese language drugs and a number of the compounds it creates have been studied for his or her anti-cancer properties. Nonetheless, in 2018, mycologists confirmed local weather change — along with overharvesting — was leading to a decline in the species. The Himalayas are significantly susceptible because the world warms and, a minimum of for this species, adaptation and evolution aren’t conserving tempo. Maybe we’re warming the world too shortly for fungi to adapt.

Spores and tendrils

However how does Cordyceps unfold? And so quick? As an ascomycetes, or sac fungi, the Ophiocordyceps that inhabit Earth’s temperate jungles propagate and survive by way of spores. It is a part of their life cycle: infect an ant, take it over, create a fruiting physique, launch the spores, begin once more.

HBO’s adaptation makes one enormous change from the online game: spores aren’t the best way Cordyceps strikes between individuals. Mazin has said that is largely as a result of spores would imply all people must put on a masks on a regular basis (I am undecided that is significantly true however it might be fairly clunky in a TV present). Nonetheless, the difference replaces spores with “tendrils” and bites from contaminated individuals, two issues we’ve not seen as infectious brokers in the actual world. They’re additionally affected by proximity. Whereas spores can journey tons of of miles, tendrils and bites want shut contact.

That is the hardest a part of this pandemic to sq., however The Final of Us tries to supply a artistic resolution as to how society collapsed. 

Joel wearing a gas masks punches an Infected in a dimly lit room. Torchlight provides a silhouette of the Infected against a green and white wall.

Within the online game, Joel and Ellie typically don fuel masks in areas of dense Cordyceps spores.

Naughty Canine

Early within the collection, as Joel and Ellie are wandering by way of the wreckage of civilization, Joel briefly touches on the accepted narrative of the pandemic’s origins: Cordyceps mutated. Then the fungi bought into the meals provide — issues like bread, sugar and cereal all carried the mutated pressure — and that meals provide was shuttled across the globe. 

There’s precedent for this type of factor. The Nice Famine, which ravaged Eire within the 1840s and 1850s, was caused by an organism similar to a fungus, known as Phytophthora infestans, destroying potato crops. Although it did not immediately infect and kill (or “thoughts management”) people, it exhibits we’re a minimum of vulnerable to fungi in ways in which do not get a lot consideration.

However the tendrils are nonetheless an issue for plausibility, even when their benefits for contaminated group are partially defined in an early episode.

“The fungus additionally grows underground,” Tess, one other survivor who companions with Joel, explains to Ellie in an early episode. “Lengthy fibers like wires, a few of them stretching over a mile. You step on a patch of Cordyceps in a single place and you’ll wake a dozen contaminated from elsewhere.” This connection might alert contaminated to uninfected and make it close to not possible to keep away from them, however within the early levels of the pandemic it might take some extraordinarily inept authorities responses to really take off.

Possibly not so unlikely, given what we find out about the latest pandemics…

Nonetheless, this variation would require a significant evolutionary deviation for Ophiocordyceps. Offered the Cordyceps that Ratna sees down her microscope and the Cordyceps in the actual world are basically the identical, it might imply the fungus has basically modified on a genetic degree to one thing totally alien. It could even be uncommon for these fungi to then be in meals crops until these crops are extremely contaminated with ants or spiders or moths. 

Overcoming these challenges we nonetheless need to get to a spot the place the fungus can management the conduct of a human being. Whereas fungal compounds can alter the human thoughts (assume LSD, as an illustration, which was remoted from a rye fungus), the precise compounds required to make people extra aggressive and assist unfold the an infection would require a miraculous evolutionary leap for Ophiocordyceps.

Regardless, there lots of challenges for a mutated fungus to beat. Maybe these will probably be defined in later episodes.  

Oh and a closing word: It isn’t that spores do not exist in HBO’s The Final of Us actuality. In episode 2, Ellie asks “so there aren’t tremendous contaminated that explode spores on you?” The response comes from Tess: “Shit, I hope not.” If spores aren’t a difficulty for an infection then why are they talked about on this manner? Plot gap or potential unexplored an infection pathway?

a cordyceps infected wasp species with two yellow, budding stalks protruding from its back

Each time I see an insect with Ophiocordyceps stalks protruding from its exoskeleton I feel, rattling… Nature is steel.

Kevin Schafer/Getty Photos

Life and demise 

One of many under-examined parts of the Final of Us fungal pandemic is the decades-long survival of sure varieties of Contaminated. Let’s put the “Clickers,” an infected that first appears in episode 2, beneath our microscope.

In episode 2, Ellie asks Joel and Tess about contaminated with “break up open heads that keep in the dead of night like bats” as they’re strolling towards their rendezvous level in Boston. Joel and Tess keep silent, giving a figuring out look at one another. They know precisely what Ellie is referring to: the Clickers.

Clickers are sometimes present in damp, darkish locations like deserted buildings, sewers and basements. Locations with none gentle. There is a good in-game cause for this: Daylight and airflow do not create the suitable situations for spores to contaminate somebody sufficient to show them into Clickers. With the spores being eliminated within the TV present as an an infection mechanism, the pathophysiology of Clicker an infection is a little bit more durable to discern.

Clicker’s skulls have fully been overtaken by Ophiocordyceps — to the purpose the place they not have eyes — due to the mind an infection. The bat analogy Ellie makes use of is apt as a result of Clickers are named for the blood-curdling sounds they use to navigate the world. With out eyes, they should echolocate, identical to a bat or a dolphin. 

Whereas Clickers provide up probably the most horrifying instance of the Contaminated within the present up to now (maybe, moreover one other sort of contaminated Ellie makes reference to in episode 2), in addition they current probably the most issues for a scientific eye. For one, Contaminated take months to years to turn out to be Clickers — how is a fungus going to forestall human tissue from breaking down?

Dr. Neuman, the scientist within the opening episode, supplies one thing of a solution, suggesting that sure sorts of fungus do produce compounds that we use medicinally. For example, penicillin. Micro organism, that are a key part of tissue degradation after demise, have been at conflict with fungi for eons. For this reason some fungi have advanced defenses that people have co-opted. Penicillin is one, Cyclosporin — an immune inhibitor — is one other.

So, theoretically, fungus can make chemical compounds which can be useful for people however we’re once more in Excessive Evolutionary Leap territory. The Clickers and different long-term contaminated needs to be falling aside 20 years after the pandemic started. 

Ought to we fear about fungal pandemics?

Just about every major crop that humanity depends on is threatened by a fungal pathogen. Rice, wheat and maize symbolize the most important and most necessary supply of energy for the human inhabitants. If a fungal pandemic had been to tear by way of the crop provide… nicely, it won’t be as scary because the bitey, thoughts managed “zombies” of The Final of Us, but it surely could possibly be devastating otherwise.

What’s regarding researchers in the present day is the rise of fungi that are proof against antifungal medicine. In response to a paper published in the journal Science in 2018, crop-destroying fungi accounts for about one fifth of perennial yield losses. They write that “[t]o keep away from a worldwide collapse in our capacity to manage fungal infections,” we have to promote the invention of latest antifungal medicine and guarantee our present use of pesticides and chemical substances do not give rise to extra worrisome strains. 

One other consideration? A twin pandemic — one which lowers the immunity of people to such some extent that pathogenic fungi can take maintain.

Take into account COVID-19. Throughout the top of the pandemic, sufferers with COVID-19 had been typically presenting with fungal ailments. Researchers investigated instances of “mucormycosis,” which is attributable to black fungus, in 18 international locations in 2022, writing that it’s an understudied and poorly understood complication of severe COVID-19. It appeared to have an effect on males greater than females and was predisposed to these with diabetes, an underlying situation that may have an effect on immunity.

Whereas it is one of many freakiest apocalypse situations and makes good fodder for sci-fi TV, Cordyceps is unlikely to cut back humanity’s numbers by the billion. However the enemy is on the market and we needs to be ready. Proper now, we’re not.

Up to date Jan. 18: Closed captions make it clear the physician in the beginning of the present is Dr. Neuman, not Dr. Newman. We have modified the spelling on this piece.   
Up to date Jan. 22: Ibu is an honorific for girl in Indonesian, slightly than Prof. Ratna’s first identify. Added the part “life and demise” after Clickers first look.
Up to date Feb. 6: Edited intro and eliminated spoiler tags now that the primary three episodes have been aired.

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