Fungi, Biology | The zombie fungus Cordyceps was here long before humans and will be here long after we’re gone

Fungi, Biology |  The zombie fungus Cordyceps was here long before humans and will be here long after we’re gone

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This post was first published on forcing

Many of us sit in front of the TV screen during the day.

The HBO series “The Last Of Us” explores a scenario in which pathogenic fungi mutate and can infect humans. For many, the curiosity about Cordyceps really began in 2013 when the original story was launched as a PlayStation exclusive.

In 2020, the second part came out, and now the TV series.

The inscrutable people taking over the world, zombies, have always been a pop culture phenomenon, but the zombie genre has probably never been more popular than it is now. For many, it will likely be curious how close the events in “The Last Of Us” are to reality.

This is a fungus that turns people into real zombies. Of all the different ways in which “zombies” appear in various stories and fantasies, including voodoo, viruses, or nuclear accidents, this mushroom is perhaps the most real. But how likely is it that this fungus can truly take over a single person’s brain?

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Mushrooms in general have had a huge impact on human history. The blight fungus, which infects grain, has been linked to bouts of mass hysteria such as the burning of the Salem witch. This mushroom, Claviveps purpura, contains LSD-mimicking alkaloids that can have powerful hallucinogenic effects on humans.

There are even evolutionary theories that attempt to explain human intelligence by primitive great apes eating hallucinogenic mushrooms and thus taking advantage of the ability of LSD and psilocybin to form new synapses in the brain. These theories are hard to verify, but from archaeological finds and ancient writings, we know that mushrooms, whether as food or an intoxicant, have walked alongside humans through much of history.

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The classification of Cordyceps is quite complex. Cordyceps is often used as a collective term for all fungi that infect insects and take on their zombies. In the order Hypocreales we find Cordicipitaceae and Ophiocordycipitaceae. In these two families we find all the fungi that appear in insects, in the same way as in the last of us. In Norway, these mushrooms are called parasitic clubs because of the stick-like fruiting body that sprouts from the insect after it has died.

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When the insect is infected with the spores of an adult, it begins to grow hyphae. Hyphae are the “body” of the fungus and these hyphae take up much of the insect’s internal tissues. When the hyphae grow sufficiently inside the insect, the fungus secretes substances that cause the insect to behave in a way it otherwise could not.

In the case of ants, the fungus often causes the ant to seek out areas with high humidity, which is conducive to the growth of the fungus. Some distance above the ground, such as a piece of grass a good place. Here the ant bites the grass and the fruiting body can germinate the ant and spread its spores to other nearby ants.

See the video below:

This process has a very important ecological function. Cordyceps ensures that there are not too many insects. Although there is a lot of talk today about insects disappearing, insect populations can get quite large in some places.

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A well-balanced ecosystem does not have one group of animals that dominates – in this sense, Cordyceps infection in nature is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, as it helps keep insect populations in check.

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Diseases like the plague and waves of influenza in humans can be seen from a slightly more distant perspective as populations control densely populated areas. Simply nature’s way of maintaining balance.

But can this fungus really infect humans? In “The Last Of Us” we see an explanation of how people will behave as a result of the infection. The problem with transmission to humans is that almost all club parasites have had a long time to evolve along with the insect they infect. All parasite clubs are specialized and infect only one type of insect. This specialization and close competition often takes millions of years.

Humans and cordyceps do not have this close connection, and thus the fungus cannot infect humans. In addition, humans have a much higher core temperature than insects, and fungi will not survive in our bodies. Recently, it has been speculated that if climate change continues, Cordyceps will have to evolve to tolerate higher temperatures and thus perhaps adapt to humans? barely.

Humans and other mammals are much warmer than insects, so a climate change of a couple of degrees probably won’t be enough for these fungi to be able to take over our brains.

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Other types of fungi, bacteria and viruses pose a greater threat to humans. All of these microbes can be called briefly. Microbes in general may become a greater threat to humans in the future. If the climate continues to change, microbes will have more spaces to spread over, in addition to having to adapt to a warmer climate. These reasons can cause microbes to undergo fairly rapid evolution compared to other organisms.

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The adaptations that will be beneficial to these microbes in the future could also carry greater risks for humans. But Cordyceps is nothing to be afraid of. on the contrary. Cyclosporine is one of the 100 most important drugs in the world, according to the United Nations. This agent comes from exactly Cordyceps and is used as an immunosuppressant for people undergoing an organ transplant so that the body does not reject the foreign organ.

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Traditional chinese medicine also has many uses for the heart muscle, although only a few of the diseases it used for the heart muscle have been scientifically confirmed.

Cordyceps is found where bugs and insects are everywhere. Cordyceps was here long before humans appeared and will be here long after we are gone. If cordyceps hasn’t bothered you before, it probably won’t in the future either.

Dalila Awolowo

Dalila Awolowo

"Explorer. Unapologetic entrepreneur. Alcohol fanatic. Certified writer. Wannabe tv evangelist. Twitter fanatic. Student. Web scholar. Travel buff."

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