Fungal Invasion: The real zombie apocalypse.

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Like many of those in the video game world, I anxiously awaited the release of The Last of Us. After all, watching my boyfriend play the Uncharted series has still been one of the highlights of my video game viewing career (by the way, I liked Uncharted 2: Among Theives the best), and so when I heard Naughty Dog was producing a new game, I was stoked. However, zombies aren’t really my thing. In fact, I’ve never been part of the undead crowd – it just somehow doesn’t seem plausible.

Enter Ophiocordyceps, my nemesis.

I don’t remember when I first heard of this mind-controlling fungus, but it has seriously been the stuff of nightmares for me for years. I have read enough about outbreaks and super viruses to make the leap of faith to thinking about the plausibility of this fungus infecting humans. What is Ophiocordyceps, some might ask. Well, let me enlighten you.

Ophiocordyceps is a fungus, active in mostly Brazil and Thailand, that attacks insects, mainly ants, and turns them into zombies. It lodges into their brain, makes them walk to a cool, shady place, conducive for fungal growth and spread, and then kills them. In a particularly gruesome gesture, right before they die, the fungus makes the insect bite down hard on whatever surface they are standing on – making the body secure. The fungus then slowly eats the nutrients inside the body, a process that takes a few days, and then explodes out the head of the insect, releasing spores that will then spread to new hosts.

The Last of Us really capitalized on this fear, making for me, the first plausible zombie apocalypse scenario (I might be saying “plausible,” but don’t fret children, it is not very likely that Ophiocordyceps will make the jump to humanity). It utilized many of the more macabre behaviors of the fungus: the takeover of the brain resulting in uncontrollable, convulsion-like behavior, the slow consumption of the body by fungal growths, and the ultimate explosion of the fungus out of the body to spread the spores. Terrifying. In fact, I still slightly startle when hearing a specific bird outside my window that makes a repetitive clicking noise. They’ve turned!!!!! It’s a Clicker!!! Add to this a great story line, beautiful graphics, and a cute kid, and you have yourself a winner. My only criticism is that I love the beauty of the game so much, I would get sad when we got to dark places – but then how could you have all the scary zombie fights in the light?

Back to Ophiocordyceps. What is stopping this fungus from creating the situation in The Last of Us; the turning of an entire population of a species? Well, it has a related, castrating enemy fungus of course! So far, this super castrating fungus has yet to be named. Let’s call it The Cousin. So The Cousin, in effect, sees the fungus-ridden, dead ants, and thinks, yum, let’s eat. This takes care of a lot of the spores that would otherwise spread to new hosts. In addition, The Cousin also seems to make it incapable for Ophiocordyceps to spread – it is shooting blanks. Fungal castration.

This is not an angle that The Last of Us took advantage of, maybe for the very valid reason that fungal castration must be a pretty hard concept to show visually; it happens on a micro scale after all. Or maybe, because The Cousin wasn’t really found until after work started on the game. Who knows? But for those of us hoping for a sequel, perhaps The Cousin can somehow factor in. I don’t know, it’s kind of meta.

For those of you who are interested in this subject and want to read more about this crazy fungus, here are some resources:

Bhanoo, Sindya N. “Zombie-Ant Fungus Has Its Own Killer Fungus.” The New York Times: 7. May. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/08/science/zombie-ant-fungus-has-its-own-killer-fungus.html?_r=0>

Bryner, Jeanna. “Ant Zombie Tale: Mind-Controlling Fungus Loses to Lethal Foe.” LiveScience: 4. May. 2012. <http://www.livescience.com/20099-ant-zombie-mind-controlling-fungus.html>

Costandi, Mo. “Zombie-ant parasitic fungus castrated by hyperparasitic fungus.” The Guardian: 3. May. 2012. <http://www.theguardian.com/science/neurophilosophy/2012/may/03/zombie-ant-parasitic-fungus>

Dell’Amore, Christine. “‘Zombie Ant’ Fungus Under Attack—By Another Fungus.” National Geographic News: 4. May. 2012. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/05/120504-zombie-ant-fungus-science-environment-rainforest/> (The amazing photo of the ant is from this site!)

Harmon, Katherine. “Fungus that controls zombie-ants has own fungal stalker.” Nature|Scientific America: 9. November. 2012. <http://www.nature.com/news/fungus-that-controls-zombie-ants-has-own-fungal-stalker-1.11787>

Kaplan, Matt. “Zombie Fungus Rears Its Ugly Head.” National Geographic Daily News: 3. March. 2011. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/03/pictures/110303-zombie-ants-fungus-new-species-fungi-bugs-science-brazil>

McGuinness, Ross. “Could parasite fungus that causes ‘zombie ants’ lead to real-life The Last of Us?” Metro: 12. June. 2013. <http://metro.co.uk/2013/06/12/zombie-ants-fungus-the-last-of-us-playstation-3-3836808/>

I found the cool Clicker art from The Last of Us here: <http://thomaswievegg.deviantart.com/art/the-Last-of-Us-Clicker-355277629>

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