Is Cordyceps Fungus Real? Can It Infect Humans?

Image Credit: Shane Harvey/HBO

In ‘The Last of Us’ franchise, the Cordyceps fungi play an important role in the narrative. Its mutated strain is the root cause of the widespread devastation in that post-apocalyptic world. The game tells us that 60% of the human population has either been killed or transformed into one of the infected since the outbreak started, and civilization has been destroyed. The main narrative takes place 20 years after the outbreak and tells the story of Joel Miller, who is tasked to take a young girl named Ellie, who might be immune to the infection and hence the only source of hope for humanity beyond the quarantine zone to the scientists belonging to an organization called the Fireflies. If you are wondering whether the Cordyceps fungi are real and whether they can affect humans, we got you covered. SHOW AND GAME SPOILERS AHEAD.

A Look at the Real Cordyceps Fungus

Yes, Cordyceps Fungi are real. They are a genus of fungi belonging to the Cordycipitaceae family, hypocreales order, Sordariomycetes class, and Ascomycota division. There are about 600 species of these fungi, most of which are parasitic toward insects, though some infect other fungi. These fungi are found all over the world, but they exist in the biggest concentration in the humid temperate and tropical jungles of Asia. As depicted in the game, the fungi spread through airborne spores.

Image Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO

Different types of Cordyceps target a particular species of insect. Following the infection, the fungi grow on and inside the insect, taking control of its brain and motor function, driving it to atypical behavior. This is where the comparison with the zombies comes from. Cordyceps also garners its sustenance from inside the host’s body. After it kills the host, Cordyceps spreads out its tendrils. In time, the fungus begins to release spores, infecting more insects, and the cycle of life continues.

The Truth About Cordyceps

No, Cordyceps doesn’t infect humans. They don’t turn humans into zombies in the real world. On the contrary, it is used in both modern and traditional medicine and can be found in various health supplements. Neil Druckmann, the co-director of the game and co-creator of the show, was inspired to use a mutated strain of Cordyceps as the source of infection in the game after watching an episode of the BBC documentary series ‘Planet Earth.’

“Everything in survival horror games tries to be creepy on every level, but we wanted to add some color and natural beauty to that,” Druckmann explained in an interview with Mashable. He also stated that the game explores the notion of overpopulation and how a deadly fungus such as this would react to it. “It was all based on the idea that the more numerous a species becomes, the more likely it is to be preyed on by this fungus,” he said.

Image Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO

In the show, it is implied that climate change caused this fungus to change as well. A warmer world has forced the fungus to adapt to it, which in turn has given it the ability to survive inside a human host. Series co-creator Craig Mazin reflected on why the show delves deep into the origin of the infection in an interview with Collider.

“Well, we wanted to ground this show in as much science as possible,” Mazin said. “The game did it pretty darn well, especially for a genre where it would be easy to say, ‘Oh, there’s zombies, but the zombies come out of the ground.’ Cordyceps is a fascinating concept, and it’s absolutely real. We wanted to push that a little further. We wanted to give us much reality as we could because the realer that is, the more we connect to the characters that are in that space playing around. It was also important for us to acknowledge that the audience is smarter about pandemics than they were five years ago. We don’t wanna pretend that they don’t know things.”

Read More: How Did The Last of Us Fungus Start, Explained