In a case of art imitating life, the inspiration for a popular video game turned TV show came from a parasite found in real life. In The Last of Us, the world has been taken over by an infectious fungus that turns unsuspecting victims into zombies. It's known as the cordyceps fungus, but that's not some arbitrary name the creators came up with. The cordyceps fungus is a real thing and it does in real life exactly what it does on the big screen, only on a much smaller scale.

U.S. Forest Service - Wayne National Forest via Facebook
U.S. Forest Service - Wayne National Forest via Facebook

The official, scientific name is the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus, but it's known on the streets as the "zombie fungus." Its main goal is to spread its spores far and wide, giving it the best chance to reproduce, and the way this happens is gnarly. This description from the U.S. Forest Service paints a pretty disturbing picture...

An arthropod that comes into contact with Cordyceps spores can become infected with the fungus. The fungus then grows inside the arthropod’s body, essentially eating the host’s organs and leading to a slow death. Before the arthropod host dies, the fungus takes control of the host’s body. Just before the host succumbs to the infection, the fungus will make it climb up onto a tall object and wait for death. Once the infected host is in a high place, the fungus erupts from the host’s body and releases spores into the air. If another arthropod comes into contact with those spores, the Cordyceps life cycle begins again.

Are Cordyceps Dangerous to Humans?

Despite what we've seen on HBO, the cordyceps fungus is not a threat to humans - ants, caterpillars, moths, and other arthropods should be on the lookout, though. In fact, according to the National Library of Medicine, those funky little fungi are not only edible but can be good for us humans, saying "Cordyceps has been known to stimulate the immune system and treat metabolic problems."

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