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Tipsheet

If This Ever Happens, Humanity Is Finished

Zombies and the undead is a genre that did lose steam until 2003’s 28 Days Later. Before that release, zombies were slow-moving, blockish creatures, as seen in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. These beings were reanimated by radiation from a falling satellite. Danny Boyle resurrected the category with a new ‘zombie,’ one that spreads through a viral infection—rage—which created a more intelligent killer. Even more terrifying, these zombies are pumping full of adrenaline, making them agile and hard to kill. What’s left to spark a zombie-centered apocalypse? What about fungus? 

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A mutated form of the cordyceps fungi causes human civilization to collapse in the game The Last of Us, which has been adapted into a series by HBO. In the series, the food supply, any flour-based product, becomes a vehicle for spreading the infection. The fungus somewhat controls the infected, which floods the brain with hallucinogens, keeping its host in a state of bliss while dictating its actions. 

 

It might seem like an out-of-place segment, but the series begins with a discussion on a fictional late-night series in the 1960s where two scientists debate the possibility of a fungal infection of this magnitude. No doubt, the virus remains the single biggest threat to our continued predominance, but a new virus usually kills millions of us, and yet we remain. We win the ‘war,’ even at great cost, but maybe not so much with a mutated fungal pathogen. 

 

And yes, this is an actual infection. This fungus has multiple strains, though not all possess the mind-control aspect. A mere four degrees protects us from a terrible fate; anything above 94 degrees is unsuitable host material for this fungus. The Last of Us spawned a series of stories about this infection, and while scientists agree that such a jump will remain forever in the pages of science fiction, should it happen—we’re screwed (via NY Post): 

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“It’s this fungus that burrows its way into insects’ minds and completely alters their behavior,” he told NPR a decade ago.

“And you know, right away the idea popped in our head of like, ‘What if it jumped to humans?’ Cause you could imagine this fate worse than death, that your mind is still there but something else is controlling your body,” he continued.

Only a certain type of the cordyceps — known as Ophiocordyceps fungi — has the capabilities for a hostile takeover of a specific insect within the nearby environment. Out of the estimated 600 ophiocordyceps fungi, only 35 are known to have zombie-making abilities, per Araújo. 

The parasite first causes erratic behavior inside of a host. Then, the fungus is believed to grow cells around the insect’s brain and nervous system, thus hijacking the ability to control a bug’s muscles, according to Ian Will, a fungal geneticist at the University of Central Florida. 

Although all scientific signs point toward the ophiocordyceps fungi having virtually no impact on people — our 98.6-degree Fahrenheit body temperatures are too hot for them — Will admits that climate change is altering the nature of these spore-producing fungi. 

“In a fantastical way, the logical links are there, but it’s not likely to happen in real life … If a jump from an ant species is hard, to jump to humans — that’s definitely sci-fi,” Will told National Geographic. “But this idea that temperature plays a role in fungal infections is certainly reasonable.”

Fungi like that in “The Last of Us” ideally spread on a host temperature between 77 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit. But Johns Hopkins Medicine infectious disease specialist Shmuel Shoham warns that this, too, could be changing in upcoming years.

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While an apocalyptic fungal infection is not on the radar, there has been a spike in deadly infections, including drug-resistant ones. I’m sure the climate change advocates will use this to hijack the actual science of this organism, but just something to keep an eye on, and yes, you can still continue to eat pancakes, biscuits, and other foods containing flour.

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