Fungal Infections: The Real-Life Threat of The Last of Us

HBO’s new series The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic drama set 20 years into a global pandemic caused by a parasitic fungus that turns humans into flesh-eating zombies. The show’s premise may sound like pure fiction, but it is based on real world fungi that are actually capable of zombifying their victims.[0] The World Health Organization recently released a report stating that fungal infections present a growing threat to human life, and experts warn that climate change could usher in a new wave of fungal infections in humans.

The zombie fungus featured in The Last of Us is Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which infects carpenter ants.[1] Once infected, the fungus strips the ant of its instinctive fear of heights and compels it to climb up the nearest plant, where it locks its jaws into the underside of a leaf and dies.[2] Two days following the ant's demise, fungal spores originating from the parasite would burst out of the ant's head and spread the pathogen around the colony.[3]

Although the zombie pandemic is just fiction, global warming may indeed make the world more conducive to emerging diseases as mosquitoes-borne viruses become endemic in regions that were once too cold, or by bringing people into more regular contact with other species that can exchange microorganisms with us.[4]

Those with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to contracting serious health risks from fungal infections. Fungi that are pathogenic can lead to illnesses in humans as well as other living beings, and in some cases, have already been known to cause fatalities in individuals whose immune systems are not functioning properly.[5] Experts often express concern about Candida auris due to its resistance to antifungal medications, which has been on the rise.[6]

Is there pandemic potential with fungi?[7] Not resembling the chaotic, zombie-ridden scenes from The Last of Us. Scientists caution that fungal infections are becoming an increasingly dangerous problem, which is likely caused by both the changing climate and the emergence of drug-resistant strains.

The show’s stunt coordinator, Terry Notary, explains that he tried mushrooms to see what it felt like, which allowed him to create the scenes involving the infected with a higher level of intelligence.[8] He said “I felt like ‘Whoa, this isn't making me feel stupid.[8] This is making me feel really intelligent. Holy sh*t. This is otherworldly.

0. “Zombie fungus infects spiders and insects” The Columbus Dispatch, 19 Feb. 2023,

1. “Can a Fungus Really Take Over Our Brains?” Quanta Magazine, 23 Feb. 2023,

2. ““The Last of Us” zombie fungus exists outside of screens” The Ticker, 20 Feb. 2023,

3. “Explained: ‘The Last of Us' on climate change and ‘Zombie ant fungus'” USA TODAY, 19 Feb. 2023,

4. “The Last Of Us? How Climate Change Could Spawn A Deadly Zombie Fungus” Worldcrunch, 20 Feb. 2023,

5. “If you've seen HBO's The Last of Us this science about fungus may alarm you” The Weekly Journal, 16 Feb. 2023,

6. “‘The Last of Us’: How Likely Is a Fungal Apocalypse?” FOX 11 and FOX 41, 16 Feb. 2023,

7. “Can the fungus in the HBO series The Last of Us turn humans into zombies one day? Here's what biologists say”, 19 Feb. 2023,

8. “The Last of Us zombies influenced by psychedelic mushrooms” The Province, 23 Feb. 2023,

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