Popular show about killer fungus rooted in fact

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WLNE) — Mushrooms are a huge part of our world. From our diets to medicine to pop culture, funguses are just about everywhere.

In light of the popularity of the new television show “The Last of Us,” ABC 6’s Kelly Bates takes a look at whether a fungus could really take over the world.

This winter, HBO brought a video game to life with the television series “The Last of Us.” The premise of the game and the show is a deadly fungus called Cordyceps makes zombies out of people.

These zombified beings do the fungus’ bidding by aggressively seeking out new hosts. What may surprise you, is this thrilling and terrifying bit of science fiction is actually rooted in science fact.

Dr. Niels-Viggo S. Hobbs from University of Rhode Island confirms this mind-controlling fungus cordyceps is absolutely real. In fact, there’s something like 600 species of different types of species that we call cordyceps.

Cordyceps spores infect ants, moths, and other insects and can even infect other types of mushrooms. Once it establishes a suitable host, it releases chemicals that change the neural chemistry of the organism, and the fungus takes over. Ultimately growing a mushroom out of the host to release more spores.

Hobbs said that these cordyceps, these mushrooms that take over their ants and other insects to do their bidding, climb a high surface to make it easier to spread their spores. He also notes that behavior modification is also common among parasites.

While most parasites prefer to keep their hosts alive as long as possible to grow their populations, cordyceps has to be lethal to its’ host to complete its life cycle, making it a hybrid of a parasite and a predator.

Even though the methods of survival may seem extreme, all fungus is vital for a healthy ecosystem. Fungi are decomposers and recyclers, breaking down biological material and making it available for new life as nutrients. The Cordyceps fungus is special as also helps keep insect populations in check.

Hobbs said, “They’re crucial to the survival of biodiversity on the planet. So, even though they’re parasites, we can’t rule them out as having substantial value.”

Which brings us to the question: could cordyceps infect people? Hobbs said it would be a number of evolutionary steps for the fungus to make the jump to infect mammals like in “The Last of Us.”

Hobbs again, “Right now, it’s absolutely hypothetical, but it’s absolutely not out of the realm of possibility, especially given how many different species there are of these fungus that do something like this.”

So, turns out the show about this fascinating fungus is rooted in both fact and fiction.

Categories: News, Scientifically Speaking