The Science That Spawned Fungal Fears in HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’

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Two abstract figures stand on a strange horizon, a dark pool at their feet, unusual plants surrounding them on all sides.
In ‘The Last of Us’ a new kind of zombie apocalypse is at play — one where fungus is more powerful than humans. (HBO)

The video game series that spawned the new hit HBO drama, The Last of Us, is the zombie genre with a twist.

Instead of a run-of-the-mill viral pandemic or bacterial disease pushing humanity to the brink, a Cordyceps fungus evolves to survive in human bodies in part due to climate change.

Fungal disease resulted in around 1.7 million deaths in 2021, but it was only last year that the World Health Organization published its first-ever list of fungal priority pathogens.

To learn more about the science that inspired The Last of Us and the real-life threats fungal researchers see in the ever-warming world, Short Wave co-host Aaron Scott recently sat down with Asiya Gusa, a post-doctoral fungal researcher at Duke University.

As a mycologist, Gusa was excited from the first scene, “When I saw the opening few minutes, I nearly jumped off the couch and was yelling at the screen, ‘This is like what I study!’”


Cordyceps, the fungus in The Last of Us, does not affect humans — it affects insects. But Asiya Gusa does study one of the deadliest fungi infecting humans in the real world, Cryptococcus neoformans. The fungus is found throughout the world. Still, most who are infected do not get sick. Most infections occur in those with weakened immune systems. In those instances, the lungs and central nervous system are usually affected.

Although C. neoformans doesn’t bring about zombie-like symptoms, Gusa’s research does support one hypothesis from The Last of Us: As the world warms, fungi may adapt to survive. That could introduce fungi that have the ability to bypass the human body’s first line of defense — its high temperature — and cause more frequent infections.

Gusa will continue her work as an assistant professor at Duke University in May. And although she spends her days immersed in fungal research, she readily admits that the field has a PR problem. Until The Last of Us, the wider public has been largely unaware of the threat they pose. She hopes the show brings lasting attention to those already suffering from fungal diseases and boosts the surveillance and research capacity for the fungi that pose real threats to humanity.

“Whenever you have something that’s understudied, under-researched, and we don’t have the proper tools to fight it — well, that’s a cause for concern,” says Gusa. “And so, you know, I don’t want to sound alarm bells, but at the same time, there are already millions of people suffering from deadly fungal infections, and the attention has just not reached them.”

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This episode was produced by Liz Metzger, edited by Rebecca Ramirez and fact-checked by Anil Oza. Josh Newell was the audio engineer.

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