HBO just began releasing The Last of Us TV show, based on the insanely popular PlayStation video game of the same name. At first glance, it looks like yet another zombie apocalypse game. However, when you get into the story, you realize that the scenario is much more compelling than you think. So, just how realistic is The Last of Us apocalypse scenario?
The Last of Us scenario is one of the most realistic (theoretically, at least) ‘zombie’ outbreak scenarios ever created. The infection isn’t caused by a virus but rather a fungi, Cordyceps, that actually exist in real life. It would only take a slight mutation and transition from insects to humans for the scenario to work.
Of course, there are some huge what-ifs there and a million improbable circumstances that would have to align for it to actually happen. The political aspect of The Last of Us in case of an apocalyptic scenario is much more realistic than the actual biological aspect of a pandemic fungi infection, so let’s break down everything to see if something like this could actually happen.
What is The Last of Us about?
The Last of Us is a video game (now adapted into a TV show) revolving around a post-apocalyptic world where fungi known as Cordyceps infect people and manipulate their minds to spread, either through spores in the air or bites.
The TV series begins with a talk show where the guests speak about the possibility of a global pandemic that turns into a zombie apocalypse. The narrator, presented wonderfully by David Attenborough, quickly shuts down the idea of a virus causing such a pandemic, as humanity has the tools to cope and always manages to win against any virus.
However, he also states that a scenario where fungi cause such a pandemic is much. Much more realistic. There are already parasitic fungi species in the world that infect lesser species like ants or beetles, and the effects are somewhat resembling that of a zombie outbreak.
It takes over the ant’s mind through psychedelic and hallucinogenic substances and essentially starts controlling the ant’s behavior and actions to spread further. It keeps the ant alive throughout the process, growing inside its system rapidly before eventually growing tendrils and spores outside of its body and killing the ant to finish.
The reason why it doesn’t work on humans, however, is that fungi can’t survive at such high temperatures. The 36 degrees Celsius, which is the average temperature for a human, is too high for the Cordyceps fungus, and it kills it. But what if the fungi mutated due to, for instance, global warming, allowing them to survive higher temperatures?
That’s the premise of The Last of Us. Cordyceps mutated and evolved and can now infect human beings. The infected don’t become zombies, per se, because that would mean they die and come back as the undead. In The Last of Us scenario, the humans are pretty much alive but absolutely controlled by the fungus.
The problem is – there’s no way for us to fight the fungus in the same way we would fight a virus, and it causes a global apocalypse. Twenty years after the outbreak, there were QZs (Quarantine Zones), but civilization was non-existent, and humanity made no progress in the fight. Why you might ask? It’s time to explain the possibility of such a scenario happening.
The biological side
Technically, the scenario we outlined above could actually happen in real life. I mean, there would have to be insanely improbable conditions and circumstances aligning for it to happen, but the biological side of The Last of Us is quite plausible.
We all know that global warming is a thing, right? It was absolutely accelerated by humans, but changes from ice ages to incredibly warm eras have happened on Earth numerous times. And organisms were forced to evolve and adapt.
Now, it takes thousands, if not millions, of years, but technically, fungi could mutate to adapt to global warming and become capable of surviving in higher temperature systems and eventually infecting humans. Global warming isn’t the only factor, of course.
I’m not an expert, but experts who worked on the game suggest there would have to be countless circumstances aligning with each other for this to actually come to fruition. But let’s say it does happen, and fungi evolve to infect humans. Why would it be so dangerous, and why couldn’t we fight it?
Well, it’s because of the similarity between human cells and fungi cells. Unlike viruses and bacteria, fungi have nucleated cells, making them a lot tougher to kill without harming human cells as well. According to Dr. Ilan Schwarts from the Duke University School of Medicine, fungi are more similar to humans than they are to bacteria:
“Our cells are a lot more complex than, for example, bacteria, and fungi are more related to people than they are to bacteria that cause infections. We have this problem with our adversary being closely related, and what that means is that the cell machinery is the same as ours.
There are far fewer targets for antifungals to work with, to selectively cause damage to fungal cells without causing damage to human cells.”
If that’s not enough to give you chills, then how about the fact that fungi altering human behavior already happened in the past? In Middle Age Europe, there was an outbreak known as St. Anthony’s Fire caused by fungi-infected rye.
The fungi entered the human system through food and caused mass delirium, rage attacks, and much more – and it’s not the only case of something similar happening. Truth be told, it wasn’t as extreme as what Cordyceps does to ants, but still enough to creep me out completely.
So, the biological side is improbable but actually checks out. But what about the society depicted in The Last of Us?
The political side
This part of The Last of Us is not just realistic – it’s something that would absolutely happen if something even remotely similar to an apocalypse happened. I mean, just look at what happened when this recent pandemic hit the world.
Again, I’m not an expert in any way, just an observer, and the reality is most of the measures and stuff that we initially thought proved to be wrong. The system was constructed in a way that didn’t really let you choose what you wanted to do. Granted, measures had to be implemented, but some were kind of extreme, right?
Now, imagine if the situation was as extreme as a zombie outbreak. Those in power would certainly take all the power they can in their hands, and the military dictatorship presented in The Last of Us would certainly happen.
For crying out loud, some countries actually had armed soldiers walking around the streets during this recent pandemic – imagine what would happen in case of civilization breaking down as it did in The Last of Us? Yup, things would get ugly and oppressive – and it wouldn’t take 20 years for it to happen.
Could The Last of Us scenario really happen?
Unlike most zombie apocalypse scenarios, where the undead rise due to a virus or magic or whatnot – The Last of Us scenario is actually quite compelling and, in some twisted reality, quite possible. The Cordyceps evolving could potentially, hypothetically happen, but not tomorrow or in the near future.
The reality is we’ll likely perish due to a million other problems we had caused before fungi started turning us into living zombies. So, while The Last of Us scenario is plausible in theory, it’s not something you should actually worry about.