HBO’s “Last of us”: Will the zombie fungus kill us all?

The popular American TV show features a mysterious fungus that “eats” its victims. The LILA Gazette explains the real science behind the fiction.

By Eden Perkins – 8th grade.

An insect infected by the “zombie fungus”. Credit: Faiz Bustamente –

A woman’s face grows weeds from her mouth, transforming in front of a horrified young girl’s eyes. As she stumbles towards the girl, her eyes go blank and she seems dead. Her skin starts changing, and the fungus starts spreading. Fortunately, this is not reality. This is only a scene in the new, praised, HBO show The Last of Us, a drama about a killer fungus that is taking over the world.

The main plot of the series focuses on a fungus that jeopardizes the entire human species. But, believe it or not, this is based on a real fungus. Enter: Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis, better known as the Zombie Fungus. Thankfully, this fungus is harmless to humans, but it terrorizes ants and even flies. In The Last of Us, this fungus is literally called “a mutated Cordyceps fungus.” This fungus can bore into a human’s brain and slowly mutate them into a giant mushroom. During this process, the victim (called an “Infected”) is a “zombie” and will attack any uninfected humans or animals it sees, aiming to spread the virus.

After a few stages, the fungus can grow into a few different archetypes: Runners, Stalkers, Clickers, Bloaters, Shamblers, The Rat King (not a bunch of rats, it is actually a group of Infected humans connected by the fungus), and Mycelium Networks. 

Credit: HBO/The Last of Us

Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis acts a bit differently. The victim, or the infected, is usually an ant. Since fungi spread quickly in tropical climates, this fungus loves tropical forests. Once a spore touches the soon-to-be infected, it penetrates its exoskeleton, allowing the fungus to control the nervous system and therefore control the ant’s behavior. 

Unlike the Infected from The Last of Us, the infected ant abandons the colony and searches for a humid place at least 10 inches (25.4 cm) and sinks its mandibles (teeth/jaws) into the vine skin. It then sits there, waiting for death. A few days after the ant is a rotting carcass, the fungus sends a ripe and fruiting body out of the ant’s head, splitting it open. This is the only goal of the fungus: Survive and Propagate.

“It’s [The Last of Us] mixing and matching elements of fungi and other parasitic organisms into one super-organism”, says Matthew Katton, a mycologist, interviewed in Esquire Magazine. Essentially, the show uses aspects from multiple real fungi to make a sort of super-fungus. “The biggest thing is that, in order for a fungus to learn how to trick its host […] takes millions of years of evolutionary history for those specialized relationships to develop. So, the likelihood that something so specialized can then jump from an animal far removed from humans is where it becomes far-fetched,” the expert explains. So this fictional idea will never become a reality. Or will it?

One thought on “HBO’s “Last of us”: Will the zombie fungus kill us all?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s