Gaming / Geeky / Science Fiction

Let’s Talk About the Last of Us and Fungi

Well hello everyone. As the title suggests, there’s a new writer for Articulate and Intricate, one who plans to help out the owner and write (hopefully) interesting things for you all 🙂 I’m not going to say who, for I’m sure you can all guess, considering the author of this post isn’t the same as the owner ;D

My writing style is going to be very different – as you can imagine – but I hope you enjoy it anyway!

So, I’ve been asked to write about, and I quote;

Write something geeky and insightful 🙂 Also sciency, because that would rock 😛

The stipulation for Science most likely because I currently study a Biological Science at University (plus Science is awesome) 🙂 I figured, what better way to start off then by combining the best of both those worlds and write about the science in a relatively new video game (that I LOVED, I would highly recommend giving it a go). ‘The Last of Us.’ I’ll make sure not to include spoilers for the game’s story, in case you guys want to play it yourself, or haven’t yet finished it.

The Last of Us

Set in a post-apocalyptic scenario with various ‘infected’ running around trying to tear the skin from your face – I’m going to point out, the creators of the game were very specific in calling them ‘Infected’ they are NOT zombies, according to them – you play as ‘Joel’, a rugged survivor of the pandemic, with a Texan accent to boot. Ammo is scarce, allies even more so and pretty much everything is going to try to kill you. Cheery huh?

"Hey.... uh.... you gotta little.... on your face.... no, no, it's fine actually....."

“Hey…. uh…. you gotta little…. on your face…. no, no, it’s fine actually…..”

Game-play aside, something I was very interested in was the source of this ‘Infection’, aside from it being a fungus. The name for said fungus –  Cordyceps – rang a few bells in the back of my brain, so I did a quick check. Turns out, the in-game strain is a mutated version of a fungus that already exists, called an Endoparasitoid because they develop inside the body of the host. This fungus affects various insects depending on the specific species, but I’ll stick with ants for now for the sake of simplicity, the specific species I will be talking about is Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (formerly Cordyceps unilateralis); it works by invading their bodies, consuming non-vital soft tissue while invading the brain and effectively ‘zombifying’ them, they are even termed ‘zombie ants’. These infected ants will be forced to migrate up the stem of a plant by the parasite before biting down on said stem at a certain height, anchoring themselves to the plant. The host is then killed. From the body, the fungus grows, reinforcing the exoskeleton of the host and secreting certain compounds to ward off potential competition. Eventually, the parasite will sprout fruiting bodies (or ‘sporocarps’, these are the associated with sexual reproduction in fungi) from the head of the ant, from where the spores will be released. The ant is made to climb up a plant stem, because the higher it can get, the further the spores are likely to travel. Depending on the ant’s final location, entire colonies can be infected and killed. Image

Needless to say, the hosts have evolved the ability to ‘sense’ when another ant is infected; in an attempt to prevent the destruction of the colony, any ant discovered with this fungus (I believe they give off a certain secretion that gives them away), are quickly disposed of by other members of the group as far away as possible.

As of yet, the actual mechanisms that allow the fungus to affect the insect’s brain in such a way are unknown, though presumably it is through the production of specific compounds that alter the brain’s chemical make-up, thus altering the behaviour of the host. This was essentially the role of the fungus within ‘The Last of Us’, the host’s became violent, attacked other humans, passed on the parasite, thus allowing it to continue to reproduce. The longer a person is infected, the more durable they become, in a similar way to how the real world example reinforces the exoskeleton of it’s ant host. When a person has been infected for long enough, they will lay down to die, the fungus will produce fruiting bodies and spores will be released. Any human in the vicinity will breathe these spores, if they don’t wear a mask, become infected and the whole cycle begins again. I just thought this was a really interesting break from the rising from the dead or rabies-style virus of a lot of similar zombie or zombie-like games.

I Leave You With A Fact That May Make Your Stomach Lurch

Currently, these fungi only affect insects, but as we know, life has a funny way of changing, evolving and mutating to better the chances of reproduction. After all, the measure of an organism’s overall fitness is through how well it can reproduce, how many offspring it can produce. These organisms, what if they began to affect other species, rather than just insects, arthropods or other fungi.

What if, they really did begin to affect humans?

“Those things out there. What if the people are still inside? What if they’re trapped in there, without any control of their body?”

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