Photo by Kornwipa Ponganan

EMSL: Zombie Fungus from “The Last of Us” Spurs Increased Interest in Fungal Research

Zombie fungus: It is one of the top searches on Google this year thanks to the popularity of the hit HBO show “The Last of Us.” It also has people reaching out to scientists at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL) to see if it is possible for a fungus to cause a zombie apocalypse.

In the show, a type of real fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (also known as zombie ant fungus) has evolved to withstand higher temperatures due to global warming. As a result, it survives invading the bodies of humans, overtaking internal systems (including the brain) to effectively render its hosts zombies.

In today’s reality, the fungus predominantly compromises insects like ants, which have far simpler nervous and immune systems, said Scott Baker, a fungal biologist and leader of the Functional and Systems Biology science area at EMSL. Baker also has a joint appointment as a fungal biotechnology scientist with Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute.

“It’s realistic that this fungus could evolve to survive higher temperatures in the future, but it is unlikely that it will evolve to impact humans as is portrayed on the show,” he said. “If it did evolve to withstand higher temperatures, it might make some people sick, especially those who are immunocompromised, but not to the level that you see on the show.”

Read more about Scott’s research and the probable future of the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus.

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