Jane Herburger, Layna Girata, Ryann Parker, Maggie Chein
Since its debut on Jan. 15, the HBO hit “The Last of Us” has broken countless records and averages around 30.4 million viewers, surpassing shows like “Euphoria” and “Game of Thrones” in its first season.
This post-apocalyptic thriller takes place 20 years after a mutated Cordyceps outbreak, turning billions “infected.” Joel and a 14-year-old girl, Ellie, survived and are humanity’s last chance at a cure after the fungal pandemic has swept the globe. Though this concept of fungi spreading to humans is almost entirely fictional, recent research suggests that a fungal outbreak on a massive scale may not be so far-fetched.
“I don’t know if it’s possible,” AP Biology teacher Max Augé said. “[But] it’s not out of the realm of possibilities.”
Fungal pathogens are becoming a more prominent health concern. In 2022, the World Health Organization released a list of 19 fungal ‘priority pathogens,’ based on several criteria.
The report said that “the prioritization process focused on fungal pathogens that can cause invasive acute and subacute systemic fungal infections for which drug resistance or other treatment and management challenges exist.”
Out of the 19 fungi, four are members of the Candida genus. Mild infections from other species of Candida appear in the mouth, throat and other parts of the body, and can be treated with over-the-counter medications. Candida auris is ranked as the second most concerning pathogen on the WHO’s list.
Candida auris can cause deadly infections, and, as of now, there is no treatment. It is multidrug-resistant and spreads extremely quickly, especially in healthcare facilities because it can be carried on the skin without causing any symptoms. The CDC is especially concerned with this pathogen and emphasized that it is challenging to identify it quickly in healthcare settings.
Augé said that we have, in essence, created an environment where the fittest survive.
“Fungi change over time,” Augé said. “And we set up the conditions by using antifungal treatments for them to evolve a resistance.”
Auris is considered a health threat for three main reasons, but the most worrisome is the fact that it is often resistant to more than one type of antifungal drug.
“The problem with treating them maybe is that medicines that used to work won’t work anymore on them, if they should mutate,” science teacher John Gallo said. “It was pathogenic before, but there was medicine to treat it. But now, changes in the environment may be allowing them to reproduce and mutate faster.”
In the opening scene of “The Last of Us,” there is a fictional interview that dates back to 1968 with a group of scientists discussing what could prompt the apocalypse. When a character proposes fungi as a cause for the apocalypse, the audience laughs.
In that same scene, the scientist mentions Cordyceps, scientifically known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which is a real fungus that spreads to infect insects such as ants and spiders. According to the show, if the climate gets slightly warmer and the fungus were to mutate, it could spread and control the minds of billions, without a cure or treatment.
A zombie apocalypse caused by a fungus isn’t something that’s likely to happen in the near future, but Ophiocordyceps is a real fungus. This fungus stops ants on leaves precisely 25 cm above the ground, which is the zone where the fungi can best grow and thrive. Ophiocordyceps then takes control of the ant’s limbs and forces it to lock its mouth around the leaf. It grows through the ants’ head and releases fungal spores onto the ants below.
Researchers have found evidence that this phenomenon is not one that evolved in recent years; this all happened over evolutionary time, which is coevolution, or the process by which the evolutions of two species affect each other.
“That’s the function of biology,” Augé said. “Biology is meant to change over time.”
Global warming has helped this fungus to spread all over the world, but especially in the U.S., where Candida was mostly found in New York and Chicago in the past year. Now it can be found in over half of the country. The CDC published that the number of cases grew from 5,514 in 2021 to 8,131 in 2022.
There is some concern that global warming could be pushing fungi to evolve faster than ever before. Every individual fungus has specific conditions it prefers. Higher temperatures may mean water is more abundant, whether that’s from melting glaciers, lakes that are not freezing over or more rain.
“[And fungi] love really dark, moist areas,” Augé said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that rates of global warming have doubled since 1981, creating conditions that are more friendly to fungi. More available habitat gives fungi a safe space to breed, and higher temperatures are causing more activity.
“It’s the basic rule of biology, what happens to biological interactions at slightly higher temperatures,” Augé said.
By adapting to survive under higher temperatures, more fungi might soon be able to survive in a human host, according to an article published in the Microbiology Society website.
At ESD, Nurse Marcia Biggs takes steps to make sure the nurse’s office is kept clean to ensure the health and safety of the school community.
“Lysol is my friend,” Biggs said. “And bleach. I love me some good one to 10 bleach solutions.”
Biggs also emphasized the importance of good ventilation and drying out surfaces, especially after heavy rain or flooding.
“If you leave [fungi] on a dried out surface, they’re going to dry up and die,” Biggs said. “Just like you see mushrooms, they dry-out and die– kind of the same concept. So we try to dry things out with air purifiers, fans, that kind of thing.”
While healthcare workers are working to prevent the spread of fungal infections, we also have to try to protect ourselves.
“The other half of that puzzle is us as individuals taking responsibility for cleaning ourselves,” Biggs said. “A weakened immune system can make someone more susceptible to serious infection.”