ByKen McDonnell, writer at
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Ken McDonnell

We've seen many post-apocalyptic landscapes in our time. Film, TV and video games are obsessed with testing human beings in various futurescapes devoid of civilization and order. But one of the most compelling virus-struck worlds in recent memory is that of Naughty Dog's The Last of Us.

The game's creator, Neil Druckmann, was inspired by an episode of David Attenborough's Planet Earth—and a particular section which explored a terrifying fungus type known as a cordycep—when searching for an affliction to terrorize the digital American population with. The spores of these fungi are very real and astoundingly potent but they only affect insects. So, naturally we ask, could this ever happen to us in real life?

Scientists Explore Whether The Last of Us' Fungus Could Kill Us All

The video above shows the clip that inspired Neil Druckmann's virus in The Last of Us. The wondrous David Attenborough informs us of something called cordyceps, of which there are thousands. They are a type of fungi which prey on various insects across the jungles of the world. But how they do it is the terrifying part.

They somehow infiltrate the body of, in this instance, an ant and slowly take over its body and mind. The ant begins to lose its mind as the fungus takes hold, forcing it to higher ground. But why does this happen? Well, just like in The Last of Us, this fungus eventually grows out of the ant, releasing deadly spores that could potentially wipe out an entire colony in the vicinity. It's a terrifying concept and assuredly a horrible way to die.

But the ants are quite clever. They know of this fungus and actually carry the corpses of those afflicted really far away from the nest. That way, once the spores start being released, no one else will be harmed. Nature is incredible. But will it ever attack humans in this same way?

A group of scientists banded together to answer these questions in an entertaining, and informative video. It features Dr Ben Thompson from The Microbiology Society, Elizabeth Beardsmore, an epidemiologist at Teeside University, Rich Stanton, a game critic and journalist ,and Dr Christine Rollier from the Oxford Vaccine Group. It's an enlightening conversation and we recommend you check it out!

What's interesting about this team is that they not only talk about the fungal outbreak, but also how the game depicts humanity's reactions to it. It seems to make a lot of sense.

One of the speakers likens the outbreak to the London riots, saying that it was clear that if the population decide to revolt and tear apart the streets it would happen very easily and worryingly fast in some cases.

But once the vaccinologist starts speaking about the game's infection, we start to see how The Last of Us drifts away from reality.

Looks Like Ellie Would Have Been Useless, Huh?

For starters, Dr Christine Rollier found the choice of a fungus rather interesting. While a fungus could certainly kill people (though mostly in cases where they suffer from a poor immune system), the way in which people turn rabid in The Last of Us is unlikely to happen. This kind of reaction was likened to rabies, in that people go wild and bite one another, so a fungus causing these reactions isn't exactly scientific.

Additionally, the team of degree-backed experts spoke about how Ellie is seen as humanity's last chance for survival. Could this really be the case? Could scientists extract something from Ellie that would actually lead to a cure? The answer is no. Not at all, apparently. A cure for a fungus would only be found in other plants.

However, it would certainly be difficult to find a cure for an infection that mankind knew nothing about. In fact, the vaccinologist said that it could take up to ten years to find and successfully test a cure. Imagine how damaged the world would be by then? And even after discovering the cure, it'd be extremely difficult to then disperse it around the globe following world chaos.

So the fungus that turns everyone rabid is a little bit of stretch in scientific terms. And while Ellie is completely badass with a bow, she wouldn't be of much help to the vaccinologists. But you can certainly look to The Last of Us as a realistic depiction of how society might attempt to contain a fungal infection it knew nothing about. Chaos would indeed ensue.

What do you think of the science behind The Last of Us?


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