The Fungus from The Last of Us Could Help Fight Cancer

The Last of Us, HBO’s videogame-inspired zombie TV epic, opened to rave reviews last month. This drama, led by Game of Thrones stars Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, shows a post-apocalyptic world that has been ravaged by the corydceps fungus after the fungus adapts for survival in the human body. Scarily enough, the fungus from The Last of Us is very, very real, and it’s turned many more casual eyes to the world of mycology. Should people give the cordyceps fungus the horror treatment, though?

Cordyceps’ claim to fame isn’t off base; some species of the fungus are known to infect insects and basically, turn them into zombies. Interest in the series has raised questions of whether a cordyceps-fueled pandemic can actually threaten humanity. Experts in the field of mycology say it is highly improbable and would require major genetic changes, which would probably develop over the course of millions of years.

Although the fungus may be terrifying for invertebrates, outside of The Last of Us’s lore, cordyceps is actually quite useful for humans. It is a widely used ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, and recent research shows it may even have anti-cancerous properties. So as media consumers clamor for cordyceps content, how is the science community approaching research around the zombie fungus? Leslie Samuel, founder of Interactive Biology, a Master’s in Neurobiology holder, and an experienced science educator, breaks down some of the most recent research surrounding the fungus from The Last of Us.

Leslie’s Thoughts:

“In the field of mycology, which is the study of fungi, there’s been a lot of interest in the cordyceps fungus. That’s the same type of fungus that the show, The Last of Us, is based on. We know that certain species of that fungus can infect ants, turning them into zombies, and when they get infected, those ants will climb up a tree and bite into it, basically committing suicide as the fungus takes over their bodies and [causes] them to release more spores so that they can infect more ants. And the cycle continues like in The Last of Us, but with ants.

But there are also studies that show that certain species of the cordyceps fungus have potential anti-cancer effects. They’ve demonstrated that certain extracts from some species of the cordyceps fungus seems to inhibit the growth of liver cancer. And other studies suggest that there are specific substances in some species that inhibit the inflammatory response in certain immune system cells in mice. Now, there’s still a lot more research that needs to be done to confirm that these effects can actually help in therapies in the future. But this entire field of mycology is fascinating, with these fungi having both harmful and potentially life-saving properties.”

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