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Can ‘The Last of Us’ Happen in Real Life? Answered and Explained

A bunch of men talking about science in the last of us

Minor spoilers for the first two episodes of HBO’s The Last Of Us.

The Last Of Us has already captured hearts and minds around the world after just two episodes, including fans of the game and newcomers alike. This is partly because Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, along with the rest of the cast, are truly impeccable—and partly because it feels all too real.

The first two episodes have both begun with flashbacks to scientists explaining, in their own ways, how this global catastrophe came to be. The fact that the science behind the Infected is so clearly laid out makes it feel entirely too possible. Backed up with some properly horrifying practical effects and HBO has itself a winner.

But just how real is the possibility of The Last Of Us taking place in real life? Let’s dig into it, to put all our minds at rest.

Can The Last Of Us happen in real life?

First things first: cordyceps is very real and already exhibits similar characteristics in real life as it does in The Last Of Us—just with ants, not humans. The fungus gets into an ant and takes over its functions, while keeping it alive. It then forces the ant to climb to the highest point of a plant and clamp down on it, creating the ideal situation for the fungus to explode out of its head and infect the rest of any nearby ant colonies.

This isn’t too far off from how cordyceps acts in the show, taking over human bodies and then using those bodies to spread as far as possible. In the case of humans, that’s through biting people and possibly (as seen at the end of Episode 2) extending tendrils down another person’s throat.

What’s more, fungal infections in humans are also a very real phenomenon in today’s world.

“There are numerous fungi infecting the brains of human beings all over the planet, often with devastating outcomes,” Professor Elaine Bignell, a world leader in the field of human fungal pathogen research, told Sky News. “A number of fungal species are quite prominent pathogens and kill hundreds of thousands of people every year—it’s just that the public is not well aware of this.”

With these two pieces of information combined, it doesn’t seem too far off that there could theoretically be a fungus that can act like cordyceps does in ants and infect humans. Indeed, Professor Bignell went on to say that factors like climate change could well put pressure on such species to evolve and infect humans in a way that we haven’t seen yet. There are over 150,000 species of fungi that we know about, but just a few can currently thrive at human body temperatures. With the right conditions, however, this could change.

Tess and Joel inspecting fungus in HBO's 'The Last Of Us'

“Perhaps some could potentially make that transition from one lifestyle to another and become pathogenic in a context that we haven’t thought of before.” Professor Bignell theorizes.

However, before you run away screaming, all is not quite lost. Professor Bignell did have one reassuring statement to make when it comes to comparing The Last Of Us to reality.

“What really is the most removed from the current status quo is the scale and the rate of the infections occurring in The Last Of Us,” said Professor Bignell. “Some fungi can get passed from one person to the next—and in the environment we are exposed to them all the time—but it would take a very significant variant to be able to cause the sorts of species extinction event that they’re dramatising.”

Ultimately, fungal infection of humans is a relatively new phenomenon that has only had a few examples since the 1980s. Experts in the field, like Professor Bignell, are already working on being more prepared for such instances, through experimental anti-fungal treatments and a deeper understanding of how such species work. With the global impact of Covid-19 so prominent in our minds, the hope is that we would have the knowledge and resources to stop any fungal infections affecting the human race in its tracks before it gets to the catastrophic levels seen in The Last Of Us.

(featured image: HBO)

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