A fungus pandemic is unlikely, but not impossible

A fungus pandemic is unlikely, but not impossible
A fungus pandemic is unlikely, but not impossible

A pattern of the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus, in Nashville, Tennessee.Harrison McClary/Reuters

  • “The Last of Us” on HBO Max depicts a zombie apocalypse brought on by a fungus pandemic.

  • Consultants say mind-controlling mushrooms aren’t an imminent menace, but anti-fungal drug resistance is.

  • Here is the science reality and fiction behind the present, and the potential of a fungal pandemic.

In most methods, HBO’s new series “The Last of Us” depicts a basic zombie apocalypse.

One morning, all people is going about their regular life. There is a point out on the radio of chaos in Jakarta. And by dusk, twitchy, possessed once-humans are sprinting after the main character.

This time, although, it is a fungus turning folks into zombies.

The brand new situation, first realized within the video game that the show is based on, is making viewers ponder whether a fungus pandemic can occur in actual life.

“A fungal pandemic is positively doable,” Norman Van Rhijn, a mycologist researching fungal infections on the College of Manchester, advised Insider in an e-mail.

people walk past a billboard for hbo show the last of us

A banner for “The Final of Us” within the metropolis heart in Warsaw, Poland.Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto by way of Getty Photographs

No species of fungus at present recognized to science poses a direct pandemic menace for people — particularly not the way in which the present portrays it. Nonetheless, fungal infections are on the rise worldwide, and researchers are involved that increasingly persons are in danger.

Some even fear that new super-pathogens might come up from the fungus kingdom.

“The potential is enormous for what can emerge and change into a pathogen,” Tom Chiller, chief of the fungal illness department of the US Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention, advised Insider. “I’m not going to be shocked that extra fungi emerge as human pathogens, that change into tougher to deal with and extra infectious.”

Here is the science reality and science fiction behind “The Last of Us,” and the threats that fungi pose.

FACT: There is a zombie fungus — in ants

Zombies in “The Final of Us” bloom with tendrils of a fungus referred to as Cordyceps, which sprout from their heads and mouths, reaching out for contemporary victims.

Cordyceps is actual, but it solely overtakes the brains and our bodies of bugs — most famously, ants.

zombie ants fungus cordyceps

An ant contaminated by fungus cordycepsDenis Phelipe Gaspar/Shutterstock

The fungus grows inside an ant’s physique, causes the ant to climb upwards, after which sprouts from its head and releases spores, making an attempt to unfold itself far and vast.

Cordyceps cannot survive at human physique temperature, so it may possibly’t infect us. But different species of fungus produce substances with mind-altering qualities that may have an effect on human conduct.

FACT: Some fungus can have an effect on human brains and conduct

Maybe the obvious instance is psilocybin, the hallucinogenic compound in magic mushrooms. The fungus ergot additionally has a status for altering the human thoughts.

four people wearing eye masks lean back in chairs

Psilocybin facilitator college students sit with eye masks on whereas listening to music throughout an experiential exercise at a coaching session close to Damascus, Oregon.Andrew Selsky/AP Picture

Some historians attribute the Salem Witch Trials to ergot poisoning, saying that girls started behaving unusually and accusing one another of witchcraft after consuming contaminated rye. The psychoactive substance LSD is derived from ergot.

“Each time you’ve gotten a beer, your conduct is affected by the byproduct of a fungus, which is ethanol,” David Hughes, who has studied Cordyceps and consulted on the online game “The Final of Us,” advised Insider.

The fungus Cryptococcus can even unfold from the lungs to the mind and trigger meningitis — irritation — that may alter conduct.

Not like on TV, although, mind-altering fungus “does not soar into our physique and have an effect on a conduct that permits future transmission,” Hughes stated.

FICTION: Thoughts-controlling zombie fungus could make the soar into people

model of human body sprouting with mushrooms and fungus built against a wall

A show of a fictional cordyceps-infected human physique on the Los Angeles premiere of HBO’s “The Final of Us.”Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for HBO/Getty Photographs

Fungal illnesses can soar from animals to people. But the concept that a fungus like Cordyceps might mutate sufficient to make the large leap from bugs to people, and nonetheless hold its capacity to successfully manipulate conduct, is far-fetched.

Within the infectious-disease world, “by no means say by no means,” Chiller stated.

“But I’ll say that there is a lot, a lot of hurdles that have to be overcome,” he continued. “An ant and a human are dramatically totally different. We’ve immune methods, we reside at totally different temperatures, , our physique temperature is a lot greater. So there are just a few basic issues which can be going to be exceedingly exhausting for that individual fungus to beat.”

FACT: There is no vaccine for killer fungus

blond woman in white lab coat looks through microscope at a petri dish with specimens lined up along the counter beside her

A mycology specialist within the Vanderbilt Medical Microbiology Lab for affected person care examines samples to isolate and determine specimens for progress in Nashville, Tennessee.Harrison McClary/Reuters

In “The Last of Us,” the primary instances of fictional human Cordyceps seem in Jakarta, Indonesia, the place the federal government asks a number one mycologist to determine the fungus below a microscope and wriggling within the mouth of a lifeless civilian. Horrified, she learns that 14 individuals who labored with the sufferer have disappeared.

“There is no medication. There is no vaccine,” she grimly informs a authorities official. She recommends that the federal government bomb your entire metropolis to comprise the fungus.

In actual life, it is true that there is no vaccine for lethal fungal infections (although specialists do not suggest bombing instead). There are just a few lessons of medicine to deal with them, and so they aren’t all the time dependable cures.

In actual fact, as a result of fungi are so much like people on the mobile stage, lots of the medication that struggle them are additionally poisonous to human our bodies.

human hands hold a large mushroom and small knife in forest

Mushroom picker Roberto Sabelli cleans a mushroom throughout a mushroom competition in Rocca Priora, Italy.Alessia Pierdomenico/Reuters

In line with Global Action for Fungal Infections, fungi kill extra folks than malaria.

“The issue with fungi is we do not have loads of issues in our toolkit to regulate them,” Hughes stated.

Some lethal fungi, like Candida auris, which emerged in 2009, have even developed a robust resistance to the anti-fungal medication we do have. In hospital outbreaks, Candida auris has killed wherever from 29% to 53% of its victims, in response to the World Health Organization.

petri dish full of white beady fungus candida auris

A pressure of Candida auris cultured in a petri dish at a CDC laboratory.Shawn Lockhart/CDC by way of AP

Most fungal pathogens are opportunists, Chiller stated, and so they solely trigger extreme sickness in people who find themselves immunocompromised.

“But there are actually fungi that are not opportunists and may infect any of us. And if these change into extra infectious, if these change into extra resistant, that is actually what I am apprehensive about,” Chiller stated.

FICTION: Human bites and ‘tendrils’ unfold killer fungus

Within the HBO sequence, zombies need to chunk their victims or inject tendrils of fungus into them as a way to unfold the illness.

That is not in any respect how fungal transmission works in actual life. Fungal infections largely unfold via contact or surfaces — consider athlete’s foot or ringworm.

That is why Hughes does not suppose fungi pose a pandemic menace.

“The extent to which we’ll see a pandemic, that means the entire world is affected by a single species … that does not appear possible for fungi, simply by nature of their transmission pathways,” he stated.

Most fungal pathogens come from the atmosphere, quite than contact with different people. You are inhaling fungal spores on a regular basis. Normally, the human immune system takes care of that. But when your immune system is weak — as a result of sickness or medication — that fungus can develop inside you.

That is why hospitals and prisons are significantly liable to outbreaks. Most human-infecting fungi unfold finest when immunocompromised folks cluster collectively, or when many individuals are in shut contact and sharing widespread surfaces.

doctor in scrubs and hairnet looks at large screen with red circular image on it

A physician performs surgical procedure on an individual affected by mucormycosis, a black fungal an infection, at a hospital in Ghaziabad, outskirts of New Delhi, India.Amit Sharma/AP Picture

Some extra harmful fungal illnesses, like Valley Fever, come from spores within the air and may even sicken wholesome folks.

“The true-life nightmare situation is that fungi like this trigger extra injury and switch from comparatively delicate infections to life threatening an infection,” Van Rhijn stated.

FACT: Rising temperatures might improve the specter of fungal pathogens

Mysteriously, Candida auris outbreaks emerged independently on three totally different continents on the similar time within the 2010s. There was no clear hyperlink or contact between the outbreaks.

Some scientists believe the connecting thread is local weather change. As international temperatures rise, fungi need to adapt identical to all the pieces else. As extra fungi adapt to greater temperatures, extra of them might be able to survive and proliferate at human physique temperatures — even when human our bodies attempt to kill them off with fever.

A man drops water on his forehead from a plastic bottle.

A man throws a bottle of water over himself throughout a warmth wave.Ricardo Rubio/Europa Press by way of Getty Picture

The opening scene of “The Last of Us” hints at this, with a 1968 scientist telling a TV host that slight international warming might breed new fungal super-pathogens.

Alongside Cryptococcus, the World Well being Group ranked Candida auris as one of many high 4 priorities in its first-ever ranking of fungal pathogens final October.

Local weather change is only one issue that would improve the toll fungi tackle humanity.

The COVID-19 pandemic, like prior viral sicknesses equivalent to HIV/AIDS, left more people susceptible to fungal infections.

One other danger issue comes from bettering medical know-how, which permits extra folks to get life-saving surgical procedure at the price of taking medicines that suppress their immune methods and make them extra susceptible to different infections, like fungi.

“We’re speaking a couple of show that is really wanting to grab the attention of oldsters and extrapolate some actually cool sci fi potentialities right here. And that is nice,” Chiller stated.

“We simply must suppose fungus,” particularly with immunocompromised or hospitalized folks, he added. “Early prognosis and early remedy is one of the best ways to save lots of lives.”

You possibly can watch all out there episodes of “The Last of Us” on HBO Max:

This story has been up to date. It was initially printed on January 29, 2023.

Learn the unique article on Business Insider

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