‘The Last Of Us’ yeast infection is real and can happen.

IF YOU ARE in pop culture, you’ve probably seen the hype surrounding it The last of us, HBO’s TV adaptation of the hit video game.

The show revolves around a man named Joel (Pedro Pascal), who becomes the guardian of young Ellie (Bella Ramsey) as they navigate a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a fungal pandemic. The infection gives humans zombie-like features, spread to other able-bodied humans through bites.

The last of us is a new take on the classic zombie apocalypse story, but in this dystopian world, the fungal threat gives new meaning to “based on a true story.” Watching the show, you may be wondering if this zombie infection can wipe out humanity as we know it. And we’re here to tell you that the yeast infection is real and could really happen – well, sort of.

The fungus responsible for the infection mainly affects insects and some plants, says David Hughes, an entomologist and biologist who formerly specialized in the topic of parasites, especially the cordyceps variety, the fungus on which the show’s infection is based. The initiators of The last of us brought in Hughes to advise them on the science surrounding their doomsday concept.

What is Cordyceps?

Cordyceps is a branch of the fungus. There are hundreds of different species, but only a handful are dangerous to humans. Some of them have even been used in traditional Asian medicines.

The particular cordycep in the show, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, has a special power in real life: controlling the bodies of ants. Essentially, the fungus infects the ant and grows more of its cells around the brain. It hijacks the ant’s motor neurons to gain control of its muscles. The fungi force the ant to crawl to the underside of a leaf to die. Once the body is dead, stems grow out of the body and release spores into the air, Hughes explains. Those spores fall to the ground and attach to more ants to do the same. It doesn’t take a zombie bite to transmit the fungus.

“They walk down a sniper alley of their dead sisters hanging from leaves and shooting spores at them in what is essentially a donut of death around the colony,” says Hughes.


After watching a segment about the ant-zombie fungi in the BBC documentary series plant soil, The last of us creator Neil Druckmann was reportedly inspired and launched the idea for the original video game.

So yes, the concept is very real and often happens to unfortunate ant souls.

But will it ever happen to us?

The short answer is no, not from now on.

It would take quite a few rounds of genetic changes for this particular fungus to survive in warm-blooded humans. We’re a little too hot for the fungi. That’s why common fungal infections people deal with are mostly on the skin and nails (think athlete’s foot and ringworm): it’s the coolest part of our bodies.

It’s entirely possible that the fungus could jump to a human host, but “what it can’t do is retain its ability to control behavior,” Hughes says.

Here comes the natural question: Will climate change ever get us to a point where this fungus mutates to thrive in higher temperatures and survive in our 98 degree bodies?

Technically it could, yes. Even then, they would still have to mutate several times to overpower our advanced immune system. But we are much more likely to encounter disasters of other proportions before we ever get to that point. Hughes says we have much, much bigger fish to fry.

“It’s all a bit like rearranging the deck chairs as the Titanic sinks,” says Hughes. “The biggest problem we have is climate change.”

Many other life-threatening, climate-dependent things would happen before the Earth warms up enough to worry about this kind of infection. So Hughes shifted his studies from muscle-controlling mushrooms to research on global food security and climate change at Penn State University. His latest venture is a program called Plant Village, which uses new science around artificial intelligence to increase yields and profits for farmers in Africa.

So if the world-renowned ant-zombie scientist who helped create the show gave up on research due to the limited threat, we think it’s safe to say you don’t have to worry either.

Portrait photo of Cori Ritchey

Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a Certified Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.

‘The Last Of Us’ yeast infection is real and can happen.

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