What is cordyceps?
If you’re not asking, then you haven’t been watching HBO’s grim zombie apocalypse drama The Last of Us , a huge hit (4.7 million viewers on its first day) since it began airing on January 15th.
And if you there is I ask, do you really want to know?
“People might think it’s disgusting,” said Abdul Akil, assistant professor of microbiology at Bergen Community College.
Based on the popular 2013 video game, The Last of Us (new episodes air Sundays at 9 p.m.) is set in the cursed hellscape that was America.
Tough guy Joel (Pedro Pascal) and 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) must navigate a devastated country destroyed by a pandemic. This particular infection alone turned most people into twisted, frothy mutants with hideous growths sprouting from their brains, mouths, and bodies.
Cordyceps, that’s what it’s called. And cordyceps is the master of the show—the real thing.
Can it do what this show’s nightmare scenario suggests? Point. But the actual details about cordyceps are quite disgusting.
Cordyceps Horror Show
Cordyceps is a parasitic fungus. More precisely, it is a family of about 150 species of fungi that prey on insects – especially ants – arthropods such as spiders, and in some cases other fungi as hosts.
But this how they do it so terribly.
“Essentially what happens is the spores get on the host insect and then start growing inside the insect,” said Luke Smithson, a trustee Mycological Association of New Jersey (Mycology is the science of fungi).
The fungi produce toxins that affect the insect’s brain and begin to change its behavior.
“In some species, they hijack the insect’s nervous system, force it to climb onto some kind of chair—usually a branch of a tree trunk that overhangs other insects—and then the fungus will kill the insect and grow its fruiting body from the insect. And then its spores are rained down on a healthy insect population.”
Like the cordyceps monsters in The Last of Us — called Clickers in the series — the cordyceps fungus is forced to propagate its own species.
But like the human remains on the HBO show, the insects affected by Cordyceps aren’t taking it lying down.
“What’s impressive is that, at least in some insect societies, the insects recognize one of the infected by the way it’s acting and actually kill that insect and pull it away from the nest to try to stop the infection,” Smithson said. .
Wherever you want to be
Cordyceps is most widely distributed in the tropics, but species also occur locally in places like Pennsylvania and New Jersey. What sets cordyceps apart from the other 1.5 million species of fungi is their nutrient requirements. “They can’t eat dead matter,” Akil said. “Other fungi eat dead matter. They are called saprophytes. These fungi require fresh body materials to survive.’
By the way, not all species of cordyceps are toxic. Some eat as a delicacy.
And even toxic ones can have potential benefits for humans. Some of them are used in alternative medicine. Some of them were studied by pharmaceutical companies. After all, penicillin also started as a fungus.
“They are looking at the possibility of extracting this toxin to defeat some human diseases,” Akil said.
The premise of the HBO show, laid out in the prologue of the first episode, is that global warming has caused cordyceps to mutate over 20 years into an organism that prefers humans. In this way, it deftly taps into the two main fears of 2023: the pandemic and environmental change. In the second episode, the case joins another: incipient fascism.
But in reality, mushrooms do not mutate so quickly. They are not fast-moving artists like viruses.
“For these fungi to attack humans, they would need millions of years of evolution,” Akil said. “It wouldn’t just happen overnight.”
In general, mushrooms are evolutionarily closer to humans than to plants – by about a billion years.
“In terms of our last common ancestor, we diverged from fungi much later than from plants,” Smithson said. “Plants create energy through photosynthesis. Fungi are like animals. We have to eat things to get energy.”
So mushrooms are our long lost cousins. Hooray! That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about them. Some varieties, less grotesque than cordyceps, are actually much more dangerous to us.
“We have to worry about the fungi that cause us allergies, molds and Aspergillus,” Akil said. “They are toxic, so many people are allergic to them and possibly die from them. These are things that affect people.”