HBO’s The Last of Us sparks fungal pandemic debate. McMaster scientist says it’s a good thing
Published February 27, 2023 at 12:08 pm
HBO’s The Last of Us has taken the world by storm. The near-future post-apocalyptic drama-thriller focuses on Joel and Ellie and the pair’s unlikely partnership in navigating a devastating pandemic caused by a fungal infection that turns people into — well, think zombies on acid.
In the show, based on the 2013 best-selling video game from Naughty Dog of the same name, the fungi attach to a living host and essentially take over by altering its brain chemistry. Picture the worst LSD trip imaginable, and make it permanent. It’s no wonder the infected, who are also cannibals, by way, are so spirited.
While the plot reads like a work of far-fetched dystopian fiction at first glance, a pandemic caused by a parasitic fungal infection becomes more likely by the day.
Fungi have difficulty surviving inside the human body due to the high temperatures. However, as the planet warms, fungi are adapting and becoming increasingly more comfortable in warmer conditions.
Our fungal friends
Dr. Gerard Wright is a scientific director in Hamilton with McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research. For more than 40 years, Dr. Wright has been studying fungi.
“From microscopic mould spores to kilometres-long mycelium under the forest floor, members of this distinct biological kingdom — neither plant nor animal — are incredible and highly worthy of more attention,” he wrote for The Conversation.
Without fungi, mushrooms, cheese, bread, chocolate, coffee, tea, pickles, olives, beer, and other common consumables wouldn’t exist in their current form. (In fact, SPOILER ALERT, the infectious fungi in The Last of Us, used food and drinks as its main conduit.)
Fungi also help keep us safe from infections.
“Every time a round of antibiotics helps you recover from some form of infection, remember that a mould gave us the compounds that became penicillin and its many derivatives,” writes Dr. Wright.
“Fungi are incredible chemists. They make many compounds that humans cannot easily replicate in the lab.”
However, anyone who has dealt with a yeast infection, athlete’s foot, or even dandruff can attest to the annoyingly negative impacts of fungi. It’s what Dr. Wright refers to as its “aggressive side.”
“Apart from breaking down dead plants and animals, some forms attack living creatures, including humans,” he says. “Whole pharmacy shelves are stocked with remedies for athlete’s foot, yeast infections and jock itch, all of them nasty fungal infections.”
There are only four known compounds available to rid ourselves of fungal infections, says Dr. Wright.
“Three are available in the various over-the-counter powders, sprays and ointments we use to treat common fungal infections,” he continued. “The fourth and newest class, echinocandins, is reserved for hospital settings, where the consequences of fungal infections can be deadly.”
Fungi on the brain
Some fungi make compounds that can affect behaviour, as The Last of Us demonstrates. It’s as if millions of people are attending the same unsanctioned ayahuasca ceremony, and there isn’t a single shaman in sight.
“Look at lysergic acid diethylamide, commonly known as LSD, or ‘acid.’ Its well-known psychedelic effects originate from a grain mould. Similarly, ‘magic’ mushrooms are the source of psilocybin,” adds Dr. Wright.
LSD and magic mushrooms are illegal recreational drugs but are also under study for their therapeutic value, particularly for those suffering with severe mental health challenges.
Not so bon temp
Dr. Wright’s team’s research lab at McMaster is part of the university’s broader Global Nexus for Pandemics and Biological Threats. It also works with the global research organization CIFAR’s Fungal Kingdom: Threats and Opportunities program.
“We are working to find ways to limit the potential harm humans face from fungal infections. We also seek to understand how we can use their abundant and as-yet barely tapped potential to make new antibiotics before we lose the waning power of penicillin and its derivatives,” says Dr. Wright.
The greatest defence humans have always had is their body temperature. But what happens when that’s no longer a defence?
Dr. Wrights says, like bacteria and viruses, fungi are always evolving and adapting — finding ways to survive under hostile conditions.
“We are seeing many forms of fungi adapting to live at ever-higher temperatures, including body temperature, which has long been humans’ first line of defence,” he added.
“We are also seeing growing antimicrobial resistance among some causes of fungal infection, yeasts, such as Candida auris, and moulds, such as Aspergillus, both of which can be causes of in-hospital infections.”
Are we nearing a fungi-zombie apocalypse?
A full-on fungi-induced zombie apocalypse is very-much steeped in fantasy. A deadly pandemic caused by a fungal infection, though, is much closer to reality.
We’ve all experienced the impact that COVID-19 has had on our health, and society as a whole. But an intelligent parasitic infection that chemically alters our brains to influence perceptions and behaviour seems like a different beast altogether.
TV, movies, and videogames help shape cultures and get us talking. Believe it or not, The Last of Us is better preparing the world’s top and aspiring scientists for human-kinds most formidable future foe.
“The show does do an excellent service by reminding us that we need to adapt to stay ahead of the possibility of a fungal pandemic,” concluded Dr. Wright. “In the same way the movie All The President’s Men once inspired a generation of journalists, and The Paper Chase later channelled many eager students toward law school, I am hopeful that The Last of Us may trigger new interest in studying fungi.”insauga's Editorial Standards and Policies advertising