How a Fungal Pandemic Could Really HappenReading Time: 5 minutes
There won’t be zombies … probably., The Last of Us: how a fungal pandemic could happen
In HBO’s The Last of Us, the zombie apocalypse comes to us as a fungal pandemic. Colorful mushrooms bloom from the brains of the infected. Hyphae curl from their mouths, then spread across crumbling, abandoned cities. I hate zombies but adore fungi, and eventually, the latter instinct won out: I started watching with a friend (to avoid nightmares).
Emily Monosson, also not a fan of zombies, watched while texting her son, who played the video game that inspired the show. Monosson, a toxicologist and writer, is a member of the Rodin Institute for independent scholars and an adjunct at the University of Massachusetts. Her work focuses on how human health and the health of other species are connected.
Monosson’s forthcoming book, Blight: Fungi and the Coming Pandemic, explores how a real-world fungal pandemic could happen. It’s not out until July—but I needed answers now on the odds of zombie fungus people attacking me and everyone I love. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Were there times watching The Last of Us where you just thought, ‘Well, that’s obviously wrong’?
Was ‘zombies’ one of them?
It was the first time they came across those tendrils on the ground and they’re just kicking around with their boots. That really made me cringe. Like, don’t do that! Don’t breathe. Oh, God! There’d be spores blowing off that thing. You’d need to wear a gas mask.
Apparently the fungus did spread by spores in the game; they took it out in the show so we’d see the characters’ faces.
Yeah, that’s totally understandable. In real life, if fungi go pandemic, those spores are everywhere. Depending on the fungus, spores can last for days, weeks, decades.
You write about fungi that have wiped out entire species of bats, frogs, and trees. Those spores stick around even after their hosts are gone. If a fungi like that hits us…masking and distancing?
Yeah, but masking when you’re outside.
Right now, it’s rare for fungal pathogens to infect people who are totally healthy—we breathe in fungal spores all the time. But if you’re immunocompromised, they may be able to take hold. People really are dying from fungal infections, and in large numbers. The latest figure is somewhere around 1.7 million deaths worldwide each year.
What does the show get right?
I really loved the talk show scene in the ’60s where the doctor brought up climate change and an increase in the probability of fungal pandemics—that’s pretty accurate.
As the climate warms, and as normal temperature goes up…fungi are very evolvable. If you’ve ever touched a puff ball or whatever, and seen all the spores come out, there’s millions of them. Each one an opportunity for a little mutation. You can imagine you can get a strain that can tolerate warmer temperatures and eventually our temperature.
So a particular fungus might be able to grow in a frog, but not a human, because frogs have colder bodies. In your book, you talked about that temperature advantage that mammals have against fungi, and how it may go back to when the dinosaurs went extinct.
When the asteroid hit, there were so many dead plants and dead animals—just perfect for fungus to feed on. And the fossil record shows a bloom of fungal spores. Microbiologist Arturo Casadevall writes that because the vast majority of fungi do not tolerate warm temperatures, mammals were somewhat protected.
And now that advantage may be slipping?
One example is Candida auris. It’s on the World Health Organization’s list of fungal priority pathogens, which came out last fall. It was all over the news several years ago. That was the one where they couldn’t clean from the hospital rooms and it seemed like it was spreading from person to person, which it can. Some scientists suggest it emerged in part because of the changing climate.
The fungi in the show is called Cordyceps or Ophiocordyceps, and those are real, as is their ability to create ‘zombies.’ They kill insects and can control their behavior. Ophiocordyceps compels its ant host to bite a leaf (though not other ants), then gives it lockjaw so it stays put.
As with the zombies in The Last of Us, their hosts’ heads split open and fruiting fungal bodies come out (after the insects are fully dead). I looked it up, and Ophiocordyceps’ happy temperature is around 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Please tell me that is too low for a jump to humans.
Yeah, that’s probably not going to happen. With Candida auris—that’s a yeast. Other Candida already live in our bodies all the time, so that is a smaller leap. Ophiocordyceps are also very species specific: they infect a particular caterpillar, a particular ant. None of those species are very near to us.
If we see a zombie mammal being mind-controlled by fungus, then we should be afraid?
If we get zombie humans someday, are they gonna come from fungi?
Yes. Okay, probably not zombies, we’d probably just be dead. I think you’d have a hard time finding anyone who thinks we’ll turn into zombies. But there are high fatality rates with fungal infections.
The show also borrows an image from fungi that work with plants: fungi tendrils help the zombies communicate. In Episode 2, one character says ominously: ‘You step on a patch in one place, and you can wake up a dozen infected somewhere. Now they know where you are. Now they come.’
Mycelium, or hyphae, are just a form of fungi that’s growing in search of food. Mycorrhizae are hyphae that are connected with plant rootlets. Then the ‘mycorrhizal web’ connects plants.
Mycelium and mycorrhizae have become popular symbols on the left: mycorrhizal networks as a symbol for mutual aid because they help plants communicate and collaborate in a ‘wood wide web.’ Mycelium are a metaphor for movement organizing, because they hide underground for years and then sprout tons of mushrooms all at once.
In The Last of Us though, the symbolism is flipped: mycelium and mycorrhizae represent fascism, enslavement, and a loss of humanity. Your book is about bad fungi to begin with. What were you projecting onto the fungi?
At first, I just thought, ‘killer fungi.’ That’s how I was pitching it. But actually as I started to write, I started thinking, it’s not the fungus that’s bad. Mycologists will tell you, ‘They’re just trying to make a living.’ The ones I wrote about have all become a problem within the last a hundred years. Why? Because they found new hosts. And they found new hosts because we moved them around.
That’s why we should think about prevention. Some of these diseases are spread around on animals that are traded both legally and illegally; similarly with plants. Having a more diverse diet can also help, so that we don’t have huge monocultures, which is another way fungi thrive and get spread around.
That, we learn in Episode 3, is actually how the Cordyceps spread: through contaminated flour. In your book, you actually worry that fungi could infect wheat and cause a flour shortage, in addition to a scenario in which fungi harm us directly.
These really are pathogenic, killer organisms. It can be very hard to remedy a situation where they’ve taken hold. There are, now, three classes of antifungals, but it is true that there are no vaccines. Our cells are more like fungal cells than like bacteria cells. That makes it difficult.
In the face of novel fungal pathogens, zombie-related or not, what gives you hope?
Where I live, we have the little congregational church with the white steeple. You’d go down on a summer evening at twilight, and the bats would just pour out of the eaves of the church.
Everybody knew that you’d go watch the bats. And then they disappeared—white nose syndrome hit. They’re there now, but in much smaller numbers. The hope is that those are survivors and maybe there’s something genetically that’s helping them survive.
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