The Last of Us Is Right: Climate Change Is Making Fungi More Dangerous (2023)

The Last of Us Is Right: Climate Change Is Making Fungi More Dangerous (1)

HBO has another bonafide hit on its hand with the recent release of The Last of Us, the post-apocalyptic TV show based on the hitvideo game series produced by Naughty Dog. Both the game and show (at least through the first three episodes) weave together a blend of pulse-pounding action and gut-wrenching drama, as protagonists Joel and Ellie journey across the ruins of the United States.


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The central cause of said apocalypse is a fungal infection that turns its victims into zombie-like creatures. While the fictional disease has its fantastical aspects, it’s based on the very real Cordyceps and Ophiocordyceps—two related families of parasitic fungal species that spread by manipulating the behavior of their insect or arachnid hosts. Real and creepy as those fungi are, it’s unlikely that any existing Cordyceps species will pose that sort of danger to humans, at least in the near future. Among other things, it’s taken millions of years for the fungi to evolve their unique way of life with any one specific bug, and our human biology has little in common with these hosts.

But that’s not to say that there aren’t some lessons to be learned from The Last of Us. In the first minutes of the first episode, an expert warns in 1968 that fungi could become a more serious threat to humans under the right conditions, which include an increasingly warming Earth. Many experts in the real world do believe that climate change is making fungi more dangerous to humans, though not everyone necessarily agrees on how these impacts are happening.


Fungi tend to require a certain range of temperatures to sustain life. Our typical body temperature, roughly 97 degrees Fahrenheit, is too high to be comfortable for most fungi to regularly infect us. But as climate change raises the average temperature in many regions, the argument goes, some fungi will adapt and learn to thrive under the heat. And if people are routinely exposed to these heat-adapted fungi, some may then successfully make the jump into becoming a human pathogen.

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“The other part of this, which has not gotten as much attention, is that a couple of different studies have postulated that human body temperature over the last 100 years is actually cooling,” George Thompson, a professor and infectious disease doctor at the University of California Davis Medical Center who studies fungal infections, told Gizmodo. “So not only is the environment getting warmer, but we’re getting colder. And that’s going to further narrow that difference and put us at risk for fungal diseases.”

In recent years, a team of microbiologists has made the case that this scenario has already happened with Candida auris, a scary and recently emerging fungus that’s often resistant to the drugs we have available against it. C. auris has only been known to infect humans since 2009. Other researchers have found evidence that strains now found in humans only recently evolved from those naturally occurring in the environment, and that these newer strains are indeed more warm-loving.


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Just last month, a team of researchers at Duke University published a study looking into exactly how fungi might become more hazardous to humans as the climate warms. In lab experiments, they grew the fungus Cryptococcus deneoformans, known to cause opportunistic infections, in both human-like and cooler temperatures, while sequencing the genomes of each batch. They found that genetic changes occurred much quicker in the heat-stressed fungi, and that these changes were caused by so-called jumping genes. Their earlier work has also suggested that mutations caused by jumping genes can help fungi survive heat or resist antifungal drugs.

The lesson, lead author Asiya Gusa told Gizmodo, is that fungi “may evolve more rapidly with warming temperatures than we anticipated, especially if heat stress acts as a trigger for mutation and adaptation.”


Intriguing as this hypothesis is, it’s not a sure thing, according to Dee Carter, a microbiologist who specializes in fungi at the University of Sydney and has written about the link between climate change and fungi.

Carter notes that while the climate in North America is becoming more tropical, many people already live in hotter regions, but there doesn’t seem to have been a substantial rise in virulent fungal species from these areas. Similarly, there are other fungi already known to live in hotter temperatures, but they aren’t common human pathogens. And while the emergence of C. auris as a human pathogen is certainly mysterious, climate change isn’t the only available explanation for its arrival. Another possible factor Carter brings up is the overuse of environmental fungicides, for instance. And as explained earlier, it would probably take a very, very long time for something like Cordyceps to evolve the same kind of horrific relationship with humans that it has with insects.


The Last of Us Is Right: Climate Change Is Making Fungi More Dangerous (3)

At the very least, the effects of climate change on turning fungi into human germs are probably more complex than simply turning up the heat past a certain point. But, “there are other aspects of climate change that are very likely to cause increased problems with fungi,” Carter says.

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As extreme weather events like hurricanes become more common and fiercer, for example, more people could become physically injured and have their wounds infected with soil fungi that are normally uncommon sources of disease. The flooding left behind in the aftermath of these storms could also lead to the overgrowth of molds and other fungi that can cause allergies and skin infections. Droughts that lead to dust storms could kick up dangerous fungi into people’s lungs—something that may already be happening with Valley fever in the Southwestern U.S., (as with C. auris, though, there is some ongoing debate over this link).

“It’s also highly likely that fungi will affect us indirectly as plant pathogens due to all of the above and to greater host susceptibility (with plants weakened by floods/drought/heat), causing crop and ecosystem loss and resulting in food shortages and environmental degradation that may in turn accelerate climate change,” Carter says. “This is really a bigger risk than increased infections of people.”


Carter doesn’t rule out that she might be wrong—that climate change could fuel the emergence of fungal species capable of causing widespread human disease. If a fungus ever did reach epidemic potential, we’d be in serious trouble. Compared to viruses and bacteria, we have much fewer drugs that can safely treat these infections and no existing vaccines.

Right now, fungal infections predominantly affect people already in poor health or with weaker immune systems. But researchers like Gusa say that there have been a growing number of Cryptococcus cases in people with healthy immune systems. And Thompson has noted that doctors unfamiliar with fungi could be missing infections like Valley fever as they start happening in places outside of their known endemic areas. So even if a fungal pandemic never ends up happening, fungi are still a public health menace. Much like bacteria, fungi like C. auris and Cryptococcus are steadily evolving resistance to the few weapons we do have, meaning each outbreak is getting harder to stop.


“We need more research into tracking the spread of fungal diseases and increasing our arsenal of antifungal drug treatments,” Gusa said. “This means we need better diagnostic tools, increased surveillance, new antifungal drugs and clinical trials for vaccine candidates.”

The Last of Us might be fiction, but the fungal threat is real.


Does climate Change Affect fungi? ›

Warming also causes fungal communities to shift toward lower abundance and higher diversity. This warming-induced shift favors fungi with an increased ability to break down carbon-storing molecules resistant to decomposition, which are called recalcitrant carbon.

Is fungi a hazard or risk? ›

Some fungi have the poten- tial to cause adverse health effects such as allergic responses and asthma attacks. Individuals who are sensitive to molds may have signs and symptoms of allergic reac- tions such as nasal stuffiness, eye irritation, and wheezing.

Which fungi account for more than 90% of all fatal fungal infections globally? ›

Aspergillus species are clinically important fungi that most commonly affect immunocompromised patients with mortality rates ranging from 30-90%.

Why are fungi a major concern for humans? ›

Fungi reproduce by releasing spores that can be picked up by direct contact or even inhaled. Fungal infections are most likely to affect the skin, nails, or lungs. Fungi can also penetrate the skin, affect your organs, and cause a body-wide systemic infection.

What would happen if all fungi went extinct? ›

Fungi are master decomposers that keep our forests alive

Without fungi to aid in decomposition, all life in the forest would soon be buried under a mountain of dead plant matter.

Is fungi destroyed by heat? ›

Most yeasts and molds are heat-sensitive and destroyed by heat treatments at temperatures of 140-160°F (60-71°C).

Is fungi more helpful or harmful? ›

Some species can be detrimental to humans, animals and plants, such as mildews, canker, ringworm or thrush. However, due to its vast diversity, fungi occupy different niches in nature and are responsible for important ecosystem services, which benefit humans and the overall ecosystem.

Are fungi harmful to us? ›

Most fungi are saprophytic and not pathogenic to plants, animals and humans. However, a relative few fungal species are phytopathogenic, cause disease (e.g., infections, allergies) in man, and produce toxins that affect plants, animals and humans.

Can fungi be life threatening? ›

Fungal infections like meningitis and bloodstream infections are less common than skin and lung infections but can be life-threatening. The more you know about fungal infections and your chances of getting one, the better you can protect your health.

Are humans 50% fungi? ›

Stamets explains that humans share nearly 50 percent of their DNA with fungi, and we contract many of the same viruses as fungi.

What fungus kills humans? ›

Fungal brain infections are among the most lethal fungal infections. Most of these are caused by a fungus called Cryptococcus neoformans, which causes cryptococcal meningitis. Around 100,000 people die from this disease every year. No other fungal infection causes more deaths in humans.

What percentage of the Earth is fungi? ›

Fungi — yeast, mold and mushrooms — make up about 2 percent. These estimates aren't very exact, the real numbers could be more or less, but they give a sense of proportion, said study lead author Ron Milo, a biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

What are 3 human diseases caused by fungi? ›

Fungal diseases that affect people with weakened immune systems
  • Aspergillosis. An infection caused by Aspergillus, a common mold that lives indoors and outdoors.
  • Candida auris infection. ...
  • Invasive candidiasis. ...
  • Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP)

What are 5 diseases caused by fungi? ›

Aspergillus infection, Athlete's foot, Jock itch, Ringworm, Coccidioidomycosis, Sporotrichosis, valley fever, histoplasmosis are the few of the many deadly diseases caused by fungi.

Do we have fungus in our body? ›

Some fungi even live in our bodies. Together with more than 10,000 other microbial species found in our guts and on our skin, fungi make up our microbiota.

Could humans survive without fungi? ›

Summary: Today our world is visually dominated by animals and plants, but this world would not have been possible without fungi, say scientists. Today our world is visually dominated by animals and plants, but this world would not have been possible without fungi, say University of Leeds scientists.

Did all life come from fungi? ›

What is already clear is that without fungi, we would not exist. Playing a vital role in the maintenance of healthy ecosystems across the planet, from the Antarctic deserts to the tropical rainforests, fungi underpin all life on Earth today. Now, it appears we may have another 500m years to thank them for.

Do we need fungi to survive? ›

Although we often think of fungi as organisms that cause disease and rot food, fungi are important to human life on many levels. As we have seen, they influence the well-being of human populations on a large scale because they are part of the nutrient cycles in ecosystems.

Can fungi save the planet? ›

Fungi even show promise in bioremediation, the process of using living organisms to clean up polluted sites. They have been found to be able to process heavy metals and even radioactive material, so could be used to clean-up hazardous materials in the environment.

Can fungi survive fire? ›

But, like trees, some microbes are adapted to fire. Certain fungi are known as pyrophilous, or “fire-loving.” After a fire, pyrophilous fungi “show up from nowhere, basically,” said Tom Bruns, a mycologist at the University of California, Berkeley, even in areas that haven't burned for decades.

At what temperature does fungus stop growing? ›

These conditions occur in the spring and fall but because the fungii stop growing when the air temperature is 90 degrees F. and above, the symptoms are more obvious in the fall.

Is fungi good for the brain? ›

Fungi, especially found in Reishi mushrooms, stimulate nerve growth promoting communication among the neurons in the brain. Studies have proven that Reishi mushrooms can help in protecting the brain against seizures.

What are 2 harmful effects of fungi? ›

In addition to rhinitis and asthma, exposure to fungi is associated with a number of other illnesses including allergic bronchopulmonary mycoses, allergic fungal sinusitis and hypersensitivity pneumonitis.

Which is better bacteria or fungi? ›

Bacteria is the prokaryotic cell while the fungi are Eukaryotic cells. Besides this there are many other differences between them are known. As, bacteria need a host to live, and they can be autotrophs as well as heterotrophs.
Difference Between Bacteria and Fungi.
HostThey need a host to grow.They grow on their own.
8 more rows

Are humans close to fungus? ›

We are also likely to call a mushroom a plant, whereas genetic comparisons place fungi closer to man than to plants. In other words, the DNA in fungi more closely resembles the DNA of the inhabitants of the animal kingdom. We are nearly 100% alike as humans and equally closely related to mushrooms.

Do fungi cause human diseases? ›

There are two main species that cause disease: Cryptococcus neoformans and C. gattii. These fungi rarely cause infections in healthy individuals but can be very serious for individuals with compromised immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS. Infection generally occurs when someone breathes in the fungus.

Can fungi infect humans? ›

Some fungi cause disease in healthy people, but most fungal infections occur in individuals already experiencing serious illness, and frequently jeopardize the success of the newest medical advances in cancer care, solid organ and hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, neonatal medicine, autoimmune disease therapies, ...

Can fungi invade the brain? ›

For most fungi, infection occurs via the vascular route. The organism must first be arrested in the brain microvasculature and transmigrate into the brain parenchyma across the blood–brain barrier. As a result, host immune cells are recruited into the brain to contain the fungi.

What is the deadliest fungi? ›

7 of the World's Most Poisonous Mushrooms
  • Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) death cap mushroom © Dariusz Majgier/ ...
  • Conocybe filaris. ...
  • Webcaps (Cortinarius species) ...
  • Autumn Skullcap (Galerina marginata) ...
  • Destroying Angels (Amanita species) ...
  • Podostroma cornu-damae. ...
  • Deadly Dapperling (Lepiota brunneoincarnata)

What is the most toxic fungi? ›

Death cap (Amanita phalloides)

The death cap is the world's most toxic mushroom. It contains alpha-amanitin which is responsible for causing liver and kidney failure. Ingestion of just half a cap can lead to death. The world's most deadly fungus, and it's common in England.

Which animal has closest DNA to humans? ›

Ever since researchers sequenced the chimp genome in 2005, they have known that humans share about 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, making them our closest living relatives.

Are humans closer to bacteria or fungi? ›

As lower eukaryotes, fungi are more closely related to humans than are other microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses.

Are all humans 99% the same? ›

All human beings are 99.9 percent identical in their genetic makeup. Differences in the remaining 0.1 percent hold important clues about the causes of diseases.

What kind of fungus is with Covid? ›

The most commonly reported fungal infections in patients with COVID-19 include aspergillosis, invasive candidiasis, and mucormycosis (sometimes called by the misnomer ”black fungus .”16 Fungal infections resistant to antifungal treatment have also been described in patients with severe COVID-19.

Could the fungus from The Last of Us be real? ›

Ophiocordyceps, the fungus from 'The Last Of Us,' is real. But is it as deadly? This species of fungus, Ophiocordyceps, is known for using "mind control" on insect hosts. Humans, however, are immune.

Can human immune system fight fungus? ›

The innate immune system is well equipped to recognize and destroy pathogenic fungi through specialized cells expressing a broad range of pattern recognition receptors (PRRs).

Which country has the most fungi? ›

The top ranked country, China, accounted for 93.0 % of mushroom and truffle production in the world.

Is fungi DNA or RNA? ›

Answer and Explanation: Fungal cells contain their DNA(genome) in the distinct nucleus, a membrane-bound structure present in the centre of the cell.

How can I boost my immune system to fight fungal infections? ›

To help the immune system fight off infection, it is important to not smoke, exercise with regularity, drink in moderation, eat a balanced diet and get plenty of rest.

What are symptoms of fungus in the body? ›

Fungal infections can affect many parts of the body, including: Hair.
Some common symptoms include:
  • Asthma-like symptoms.
  • Fatigue.
  • Headache.
  • Muscle aches or joint pain.
  • Night sweats.
  • Weight loss.
  • Chest pain.
  • Itchy or scaly skin.

What is the root cause of fungal infection? ›

The main cause of fungal infection is compromised immunity (either local immunity over the skin or mucous membranes or systemic immunity as seen in the case of certain conditions such as diabetes and HIV/AIDS).

Which organ is affected by fungal disease? ›

Systemic fungal infections affect organs such as the lungs, eyes, liver, and brain and also can affect the skin. They typically occur in people who have a weakened immune system (see Opportunistic fungal infections. They were once thought to be plants but are now classified as their own kingdom.

What virus is caused by fungi? ›

Mycoviruses are viruses that infect fungi and replicate in fungi.

What skin disease is caused by fungus? ›

Ringworm is a common skin infection that is caused by a fungus. It's called “ringworm” because it can cause a circular rash (shaped like a ring) that is usually red and itchy. Anyone can get ringworm.

How do I rid my body of fungus? ›

Antifungal medications work to treat fungal infections. They can either kill fungi directly or prevent them from growing and thriving. Antifungal drugs are available as OTC treatments or prescription medications, and come in a variety of forms, including: creams or ointments.

What foods cause fungus in the body? ›

In particular, foods high in sugar, refined grains, dairy products, processed meats, and alcohol may promote the growth of Candida ( 28 ).

Why is my body full of fungus? ›

Fungal infections are more common in places on your body that trap moisture or have a lot of friction. You're at higher risk for infection, especially severe ones, if you have poor circulation or diabetes, or if you have a weakened immune system from: HIV/AIDS. Cancer or cancer treatments.

How does temperature affect fungi growth? ›

Fungal and bacterial growth rates had optimum temperatures around 25-30 degrees C, while at higher temperatures lower values were found. This decrease was more drastic for fungi than for bacteria, resulting in an increase in the ratio of bacterial to fungal growth rate at higher temperatures.

How do fungi respond to changes in their environment? ›

Fungi can sense environmental signals and react accordingly, changing their development, direction of growth, and metabolism. Sensory perception lies at the heart of adaptation to changing conditions, and helps fungi to improve growth and recycle organic waste, and to know when and how to infect a plant or animal host.

How does environment affect the growth of fungi? ›

Temperature, pH and light plays an important role on the growth and reproduction of fungi. All the fungi have minimum temperature, below which they cannot grow and above which they are inactivated or killed. Each fungus has its temperature range for the growth.

What environmental factors affect fungi? ›

Summary. A review of the factors affecting fungal growth indicates that moisture level, oxygen content, and temperature are the growth requisites that can be most easily altered to adversely affect fungal growth and delay stain or decay development.

What is the best climate for fungi? ›

Temperature: Fungi grow best in warm temperatures. Some species of fungi do grow better at warm temperatures (70-90°F), but there are some that thrive in very high temperatures of 130-150°F and some that will thrive in very low temperatures below 32°F (below freezing).

Can fungi survive extreme heat? ›

The ability of fungi to tolerate high or low temperatures suggests that there are species which can actively live and tolerate such extremes and use different mechanisms to survive such stress.

Does fungal activity increase or decrease climate change? ›

These fungi are climate change warriors, helping forests absorb CO2 pollution, delaying the effects of global warming, and protecting our planet. Yet human activity and pollution are causing forests to lose these fungal carbon guardians, and the loss of these fungi may be accelerating climate change.

Do fungi need carbon dioxide? ›

It turns out that fungi, much like people and animals, take in oxygen and respire carbon dioxide (CO2), a major greenhouse gas. There are an enormous variety and amount of fungi in forest soils throughout the world that live on the roots of trees.

How much CO2 do fungi produce? ›

According to the American Mushroom Institute, all the emissions of CO2 from producing one pound of button mushrooms (compost, energy, etc.) results in about 0.7 pounds of CO2.

Is fungi good or bad for the environment? ›

Fungi are an important part of soil biodiversity, and this diverse group of organisms can help tackle global challenges, including climate change and hunger. Fungi are closely interlinked with vegetation and carbon and nutrient cycling.

Does fungi need air to survive? ›

Like us, fungi can only live and grow if they have food, water and oxygen (O2) from the air – but fungi don't chew food, drink water or breathe air.

What are the 3 factors that affect fungal or bacterial growth? ›

Warmth, moisture, pH levels and oxygen levels are the four big physical and chemical factors affecting microbial growth.

What are 2 environmental conditions that all fungi require for survival? ›

Fungi are generally; grow better in warm, acidic, and aerobic environments, but they can survive in cold, alkaline, and anaerobic environments. Although the growth temperatures of the fungi are quite wide, the best growth is seen at 25°C.

What three conditions promote the growth of fungi? ›

In addition to humidity and water, fungi need adequate nutrition and temperatures to grow. The availability of nutrients depends on the composition of the building material. Building materials like wood and ceiling tiles are organic in nature; they contain complex polymers like starch, cellulose and lignin.

What are the two environmental conditions that encourage fungal growth? ›

They grow in aerobic conditions but also can grow in the absence of oxygen by fermenting sugars. The energy yield from fermentation is much lower than from aerobic respiration, and the biomass production is often less than 10% of that in aerobic culture.


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