Mind-controlling Fungus Likely Exists in Laos

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HBO Television Series - The Last of Us
HBO Television Series - The Last of Us (Photo: HBO).

The type of mind-controlling fungus popularized by the television show and video game “The Last of US” may exist in Laos, but is unlikely to affect humans.

In the HBO television series, a type of cordyceps fungus evolves to infect humans, causing a parasitic brain infection that effectively turns people into zombies. And although the human disease resides firmly in the realm of fiction, the idea for the story was based on a similar parasitic infection that effectively controls the minds of insects.

Creator of The Last of Us, Neil Druckmann, says he was inspired by a documentary aired by the BBC as part of its Planet Earth series. In the episode that captured his interest, an ant is infected by the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus and forced to climb a tree, effectively mind-controlled.

In the real world, cordyceps infection begins by growing inside an insect, eventually killing it, and finally sending out tendrils and releasing spores. The infected insect starts acting erratically after ingesting the spores and loses control of its thoughts and motor abilities, becoming a zombie-like creature.

The fungus is found in tropical climates worldwide, including Laos, with six specific species described in Thailand.

In an interview with National Geographic, João Araújo, an expert on parasitic fungi at the New York Botanical Garden, says it is unlikely that the fungus could easily make the jump from infecting insects to humans.

This is because unique strains of zombie-producing fungi have minimal effect on organisms other than the one they evolved to infect, since each species has evolved to match a certain insect.

“If the fungus really wanted to infect mammals it would require millions of years of genetic changes,” says Araújo in the interview.

But rising temperatures are causing changes in the way fungi behave, with several hundred known to be dangerous to humans.

Scientists believe that as climate change warms the Earth, the change between environment temperature and body temperature won’t vary as dramatically, hypothetically making it easier for fungi to be able to survive inside the human body.

There is one fungal species capable of infecting people that scientists think may have resulted from warming temperatures, called Candida auris, and scientists believe it may have emerged as a result of warmer temperatures.

According to scientists, Candida auris was unknown until 2007, but in 2011 and 2012, it was suddenly found on three different continents.  It is believed to have remained undetected until higher temperatures allowed it to adapt and break through.

But for now, unless you are an insect, a walk through the jungle should be safe from mind-controlling zombie fungi.