Cordyceps is a fungus that slowly infiltrates the body in order to take over the brain, as if it were a video game.But is the cordyceps brain infection real? That’s because it is: Cordyceps Brain Infection (CBI) has conquered the world in The Last of Us (and The Last Of Us Part 2). But the fungus that inspired the game does exist — and it’s just as gnarly in real life.
In the real world, Cordyceps is a genus of fungus that includes hundreds of species. The fungi aren’t attempting to infect humans, but they may cause significant damage to insects.
In China, a kind of fungus known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis infects ghost moth larvae and is seen as a valuable prize linked with sexual vigour. However, the form of cordyceps most of us are acquainted with (perhaps thanks to Planet Earth fame) is Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which targets carpenter ants exclusively.
In carpenter ants, the fungus takes control of the muscles in its path. Shortly before death, the ant will leave the colony at sunset and search for a high-hanging leaf or limb to clasp it in its jaws. The ant is suspended from the roof until it dies, at which point the fungus releases spores that rain down on unsuspecting individuals. It’s been dubbed “zombie fungus” as a result of this process, which takes place in the dead of night.
It’s evident that The Last of Us was influenced by this real-life fungus. It also has the same genus name, which is no coincidence.
The second reason is that David Hughes, an entomologist and biologist at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, advised the game developers on the first Last of Us game. Cordyceps fungus is one of Hughes’ specialties.
“The developers really did an excellent job on their own,” Hughes explains.
The sequel doesn’t significantly advance the medical science of the condition in comparison to the original. However, in the interim, we’ve learned a lot more about how Ophiocordyceps unilateralis functions. We also learned that cordyceps does not target the ant’s brain to turn it into a zombie: instead, it protects the brain while causing havoc all around.