The Real-Life Last Of Us Brain Infection Can Actually Be Found Deep In The Jungle

For decades, science fiction writers have relied on the idea of a virus wiping out most of humanity. For example, Stephen King did it in his seminal 1978 novel "The Stand," and Alex Garland did it in 2002's "28 Days Later." The idea of pathogens wiping out humanity isn't limited to just viruses, however. For example, as the Concord Monitor reports, the "villain" (so to speak) in Michael Crichton's 1969 book "The Andromeda Strain" is not a virus or a bacterium but an unspecified form of alien pathogen. Similarly, in the video-game series "The Last Of Us," the deadly pathogen is a fungus that turns its victims into zombies, according to TechCrunch.

On the subject of "The Last Of Us," the popular franchise is moving from the arena of video games and into that of premium cable: It's becoming a TV series on HBO and HBO Max, which will be released in 2023. And as it turns out, the fungus that wreaks havoc in the game/TV series' universe is real. Kind of. And it really does turn its victims into zombies, in a manner of speaking.

The Cordyceps Genus

According to The Mary Sue, the pathogen that wreaks havoc in the "Last Of Us" universe is a real thing. Sort of. The cordyceps genus of fungus, which is the antagonist in the series, is definitely real (via ScienceDirect), and it does turn its victims into zombies. There are actually several hundreds of species in the cordyceps genus, and some of them are even beneficial to humans. For example, according to the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, some iterations of the fungus have been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Similarly, according to Forager Chef, some species of the fungus can safely be eaten by humans, although we strongly recommend not eating any mushrooms you find unless you are 100 percent certain they are safe to eat.

The species of cordyceps that makes zombies, however, is hard to come by unless you're specifically looking for it. And if/when you do, prepare to be horrified.

Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis, The Ant-Zombie Fungus

Species of the cordyceps fungus grow in various places across the globe, but THE cordyceps fungus, the one that turns ants into zombies, is known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, and it's found in tropical rainforests, such as those found in Brazil (via The Atlantic). Should an ant become infected with this species of fungus, it will effectively hijack the ants brain and force it to do its own bidding. Specifically, the fungus will make the ant leave its colony, go to a specific place on a specific leaf, compel it to bite down on it permanently, and then turn the insect into a conduit for more infections. "A deceased ant if there ever was one, save for the spiraling fruiting bodies of the fungus now protruding from the ant's head and body," notes Scientific American. And since ants follow chemical trails left by other ants, it zombifies other ants in the colony.

Fortunately, according to The What If Show, this is an ant problem and not a human problem. Human immune systems are better at fighting off this kind of infection, and unless the species mutates, we don't have to worry about this fungus turning us all into zombies. For now.