Posted on 01/18/2023 06:00
(Image Credit: HBO Max/Disclosure)
HBO’s new series, The Last of Us, wowed fans worldwide with just one episode, showing viewers what it would be like if the world went through a pandemic caused by a fungus capable of control human behavior. What some admirers of the show that launched on Sunday (1/15) don’t know is that the alternate reality created by the writers isn’t that far off. Starting with the zombie fungus that wiped out television production, it’s real and has existed on Earth for at least 48 million years.
The production was inspired by the 2006 Planeta Terra series, in which one of the episodes, produced by biologist David Attenborough, brought to screens the raging power of the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, commonly referred to as the zombie fungus because of its power to to control the behavior of its hosts. It was discovered by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in 1859.
In real life, the fungus so far only makes prey in wildlife — notably carpenter ants from the Componutus strain that lives in the Americas, Europe, and Africa — but in theory, climate change could cause the virus to undergo a process of evolution and become a human one Pathogens, that is, to a fungus that can get sick and “occupy” people.
Should such an evolution occur, humans could be preparing for a natural apocalypse of the darkest: the fungus’ modus operandi ranges from silent possession of the victim’s body to exploding the insect’s head to release more foci of the fungus into the surrounding area who will die.
The series is not exaggerating when it classifies the fungus as a possible killer of humans. Because in order to infect humans, the parasite would have to adapt to the high temperatures of the human body which is not possible today because the difference between forests and the interior of humans is large. Therefore, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis prefers coldblooded animals that cannot warm up.
Such a development has already occurred in the history of the earth. In 2019, researchers Arturo Casadevali and Vincent Robert discovered that a disease caused by a fungus in 2009 is a consequence of the evolution of the first fungus into a human pathogen, Candida auris. The parasite is the result of climate change, which warmed the forests where it was found and caused it to adapt more easily in mammals: first in birds, then in humans.
Responsible for fever, chills, and pain until the infected person dies, Candida auris does not have the power to control the mind like the fungus in The Last of Us. Which means the show’s mushroom might just be waiting for humans to continue degrading the planet to take the place for good.
Zombie ant producers: know how the fungus works in insects
In an emergency, don’t say that post Office did not advise on the “symptoms” how to get rid of the zombie infection. Here is a walkthrough of how Ophiocordyceps unilateralis affects victims.
Once installed in the ant, which is usually caught by Ophiocordyceps unilateralis while walking on the forest floor, the fungus goes through a silent incubation period during which none of the insect’s “relatives” realize that it is reaching the end of its life. During this time, the parasite spreads throughout the body and begins to spread through the insect’s hemocoel — a type of main artery in the body.
Present in the crucial pathways of the ant organism, the fungus, through an extended phenotype, begins to manipulate the insect’s behavioral patterns: stop following other ants in group activities, stop feeding, and have seizures.
Incidentally, the fungus uses this last property to bring the ant to the “graveyard”: the carpenter lives in the tops of trees and is dropped on the forest floor by the fungus through convulsions and walking control. Striving for Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a plant with powerful nutrients for fungal growth.
Once the fungus spots a “succulent” leaf, it causes the ant to use its mandibles with “abnormal force” to cling to the object. From the moment mating occurs, the ant loses control of the jaw and movements — a 2019 University of Florida study shows the fungus has great power over the insect’s muscles.
In temperate climates like Brazil, the ant will cling to nutritious branches. In both places plant or branch the mating of the insect leaves traces. A fossil of a leaf with the same markings was found in the Messel Pit in Germany. The artifact has been dated to 48 million years, showing the longevity of the fungus.
Once attached and with new fungal cells ready to be spread throughout the environment, the fungus kills the ant and takes full control of the host. Then a new organism begins to appear between the head and the body of the ant, for the outer part a kind of “bunch” of fungi.
This sac is released into the environment after 4 to 10 days of “possession” by the explosion of the ant’s head and the sac itself. The victim’s body is left in the graveyard, where several others can be seen.
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