Zombie lovers, gamers, and action TV fans are all streaming HBO Max’s new series, The Last of Us. The show is based on a video game of the same name where mushrooms have evolved to take over the human body, creating human/mushroom hybrids that love zombifying any of the initial survivors. Watching the show got us thinking: could mushrooms actually take over the human body, causing a mushroom master race that would eventually rule the world? Signs point to no, but let’s explore the possibilities – just in case.
Cordyceps: The Zombie Fungi
There is a sliver of reality in the show’s concept. The original video game creators who came up with the idea were inspired by cordyceps, a genus of over 600 fungi species that can be found worldwide. Certain species are actually able to consume the body of arthropods: ants, wasps, and other bugs. The mycelium eventually replaces the host tissue and feeds off the host. When it comes time for the fungi to spread, it compels the host to climb onto a plant near its colony. Then the fungi bursts out of the host and spreads its spores into the colony. Scientists aren’t sure how cordyceps is able to control its host, but most suspect it’s an issue related to the nervous system. Clearly, this gruesome pro=cess is a great reference point for someone who’s creating a horror story!
The Leap from Arthropods to Humans
So, is it possible that these fungi could do the same thing to humans? Not any time soon, according to scientists. The length of time it would take for cordyceps to evolve to attack humans means we won’t see it in our lifetimes. That’s not to mention the fact that the bodies of arthropods and humans operate in vastly different ways. It may not even be possible for this fungus to control the human brain or manipulate the body, especially since humans are (hopefully) far more likely to recognize that something weird is happening once mushrooms start to grow inside them.
The bottom line? It’s not time for us to start stockpiling supplies for the mushroom apocalypse…yet.
*There is no scientific evidence to suggest that mushrooms could cause a zombie apocalypse. The idea that a specific type of fungus could take over a human's brain and turn them into a "zombie" is a popular concept in fiction and horror movies, but it has no basis in reality. While there are some species of fungi that can have mind-altering effects on insects and animals, such as the infamous Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus that infects ants, there is no evidence that these fungi can have similar effects on humans. Mushrooms are a diverse and fascinating group of organisms that have many beneficial properties, including medicinal and nutritional value. They are widely consumed by people all over the world and are a key ingredient in many cuisines. While there is no scientific basis for the idea that mushrooms could cause a zombie apocalypse, it is important to handle them safely and avoid consuming wild mushrooms without proper identification. Some species of mushrooms can be poisonous and even deadly if ingested.