These real-life fungi are absolute nightmare fuel (2023)

The first three episodes of HBO’s The Last of Us have a lot to say about fungi. The series begins with a warning, as a gray-haired epidemiologist played by actor John Hannah cautions us that some fungi, including Ophiocordyceps, seek not to kill but to control” the behavior of the animals they infect. Later, a mycologist at the University of Indonesia, played by Christine Hakim, explains that there is no medicine nor vaccine to fight off such a fungus in humans. What she proposes next—that our only solution to an emerging fungal epidemic is to “bomb this city and everyone in it”—is prime cinematic hyperbole. Although we fight these infections with intravenous therapy, not incendiary devices, there’s still real cause for concern when it comes to fungi.

The fungi that colonize our vast planet, though mostly a far cry from the phantasmic organisms that transform people into zombies, can pose serious threats to agriculture, biodiversity, and human health, especially in an increasingly warmer world. These fungi are precisely the ones you should be familiar with and, in some cases, fear.

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Common human-associated fungi, which the public perceive as “bad” or “gross,” such as the ones that cause athlete’s foot, dandruff, run-of-the-mill yeast infections, and toenail fungus, are not the ones that keep doctors awake at night. But you can’t sell what you can’t see so Hollywood continues to play up the behavior-modifying properties of a few exceptional fungi at the expense of the truly invasive ones that are responsible for hospital stays and a majority of patient deaths.

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“From a clinical perspective, the impact of these fungal diseases is really underappreciated,” says Bridget Barker, an associate professor of mycology at Northern Arizona University. “The patients get really sick before they get intervention.” Because many fungi opportunistically infect already sick patients, it complicates our understanding of their role in patient deaths and probably helps explain their near absence from the public conversation.

Even for physicians, especially those in many parts of the world where some of these fungal infections are most prevalent, “the biggest challenge is making the diagnosis,” says Ilan Schwartz, a physician at Duke University in North Carolina who specializes in fungal disease.

In some places, clinicians still lack even the most basic tests, which can lead to an incorrect determination. By the time they realize a fungus, not a bacterial infection like tuberculosis, is causing the disease, treatment is generally less effective and can unfortunately lead to death.

But, if caught early enough, therapies can be very effective.

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Tried-and-tested fungal treatments

There are three main classes of antifungals, medications that kill or suppress fungi, according to Schwartz. Of these, only one (azoles) can be taken as a pill outside the hospital setting. The negative side effects of the other two, echinocandins and polyenes, require professional medical oversight. “Any resistance to any one of these classes is hugely important and really restricts our ability to treat patients,” Schwartz explains.

And just how far-fetched is the emergence of fungi that resist our best drugs?One soil-dwelling fungus that also causes lung infections, Aspergillus fumigatus, shows resistance in 10 to 15 percent of isolates in some locations, Schwartz says. “The azoles they use in the field [to combat plant pathogenic fungi] are structurally very similar to the one we use in the clinic.” So what Joel told Ellie in the third episode of The Last of Us is right: Fungi are mutating. Though many have mastered the art of invading animals long ago, including people, they are becoming harder to fight once they are inside us.

These real-life fungi are absolute nightmare fuel (1)

Killer fungi outside of fiction

Some might argue that the fungi that live rent-free in our bodies are far more alarming than Ophiocordyceps. This includes fungi that cause Valley Fever, a disease in the southwestern US that is expanding northward and westward as the climate warms. Two closely related soil-inhabiting fungi responsible for this disease, Coccidioides posadasii and Coccidioides immitis (simply called “Cocci”), are a major concern. “We’re already seeing increases in areas in California where they hadn’t seen very many cases,” says Barker, who is among the world’s experts on Cocci. The Onygenales, the larger group of fungi that includes Cocci, are “concerning,” she notes, “because they cause disease in otherwise healthy people.” And because this particular group is co-evolving with mammals, “this is probably where the future threats will come from.”

Schwartz has his own concerns about Cocci. “The environment that favors the growth of this fungus is also the environment that favors wildfires,” he explains. The epithelial changes that occur with wildfire exposure dramatically increases the risk of Valley Fever.” When the ash settles in our lungs, so too may these fungi.

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Cocci is far from the only fungal infection showing up in the clinic. In fact, outside of specific geographic areas where they are endemic, few cases of Cocci or its Onygenales counterparts are reported nationwide.“What I see as a clinician on a day-to-day basis is primarily invasive candidiasis and aspergillosis,” Schwartz says. These fungal diseases affect people with weakened immune systems, many because of cancer or a viral infection, including HIV/AIDS, COVID-19, or flu. The human immune system can also be weakened by treatment with corticosteroids and immunosuppressant drugs, like ciclosporin (coincidentally, a drug naturally produced by a close relative of Ophiocordyceps). “Viruses themselves cause various forms of immunoparesis [or dampened immune response] that then allow secondary infections to come in and basically run amuck,” Schwartz explains.

These real-life fungi are absolute nightmare fuel (2)

Lessons from epidemics in wildlife

Fungi infect animals, too—with their own implications for human health. Some recent large-scale fungal disease outbreaks among wildlife include mass die-offs of amphibians, due to chytridiomycosis, and bats, due to white-nose syndrome.An unchecked fungal animal pandemic can look apocalyptic: a dark backwater bloated with hundreds of frogs floating belly up, for instance, with their fungus-stiffened legs rising out of the water.

Prior to the 1990s, only a handful of mycologists knew anything about these bizarre aquatic fungi we call chytrids. The most famous among them, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis or Bd, is responsible for the extinction of some 90 amphibian species with another 124 species experiencing global population declines of 90 percent or more.

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Why should we care about frog-killing fungi? Well, like with human pathogens, climate change can accelerate spread in areas where the fungus was previously kept in check according to Rabern Simmons, a chytrid expert and curator of fungi at Purdue University Herbaria. More importantly, we are just now beginning to see the “hidden human welfare costs” of biodiversity loss, he says. In Costa Rica and Panama, an area hard hit by chytridiomycosis, Bd-driven collapse of amphibians has led to more mosquitoes and malaria cases in humans, as per a 2022 study. “We are seeing human health implications because of a microscopic aquatic mobile fungus that hardly anybody knew about,” says Simmons.

There is nothing fictional about the threat some fungi pose to us. While Ophiocordyceps fungi will continue to manipulate and kill insects, as it has done over millions of years of co-evolutionary history with their invertebrate hosts, the human fungal epidemic on the horizon likely will not bother to modify our behavior. Our history is more likely to intersect with an unassuming mold lurking quietly in the soil or forming a biofilm in a hospital sink: ever adapting to our dwindling lines of defense. Though a world where we do too little to stop a rising tide of fungal pathogens is a horrific prospect, our collective failure to recognize the interconnectedness between pathogens, people, animals, and plants could be more terrifying.


What does fungi feed on in the human body? ›

They feed on living hosts. As parasites, fungi live in or on other organisms and get their nutrients from their host. Parasitic fungi use enzymes to break down living tissue, which may causes illness in the host.

What are diseases caused by fungi called? ›

Fungal infections, or mycosis, are diseases caused by a fungus (yeast or mold). Fungal infections are most common on your skin or nails, but fungi (plural of fungus) can also cause infections in your mouth, throat, lungs, urinary tract and many other parts of your body.

Where do fungus come from? ›

Fungi can live outdoors in soil and on plants, indoors on surfaces and in the air, and on people's skin and inside the body. There are millions of fungal species, but only a few hundred of them can make people sick. Mild fungal skin infections can look like a rash and are very common.

What is Valley Fever caused by? ›

Valley fever, also called coccidioidomycosis, is an infection caused by the fungus Coccidioides. The fungus is known to live in the soil in the southwestern United States and parts of Mexico and Central and South America.

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.

Can fungi grow in your stomach? ›

Fungi capable of growing in and colonizing the gut are limited to a small number of species, mostly Candida yeasts and yeasts in the family Dipodascaceae (Galactomyces, Geotrichum, Saprochaete).

How do you get rid of fungus in your body? ›

Management and Treatment
  1. Antifungal creams, many of which are available over-the-counter.
  2. Stronger prescription medications, which may work faster.
  3. Oral medicines, if the fungal infection is severe.
Sep 25, 2020

Does skin fungus itch? ›

Fungal skin infections can be itchy and annoying, but they're rarely serious. Common infections such as athlete's foot, jock itch, and ringworm are caused by fungus and are easy to get and to pass around. In healthy people, they usually don't spread beyond the skin's surface, so they're easy to treat.

Can Cordyceps control humans? ›

Although cordyceps does not infect humans, it does infect many insects. HBO's new post-apocalyptic series is based on a revered 2013 video game. The hit HBO series "The Last Of Us" describes a post-pandemic world devastated by a mass outbreak of a "zombie fungus" that infects and takes over the mind of its hosts.

Are humans a fungus? ›

Humans are vertebrates that belong to the kingdom Animalia and Fungi is a separate kingdom. Humans are not fungi. There are many differences between them. Fungi are decomposers, they break down complex organic matter into inorganic compounds.

Can fungus spread inside your body? ›

When fungal organisms enter the body and the immune system is compromised these fungi grow, spread and invade into tissue and spread locally. Some organisms, especially yeast and some molds, can invade the blood vessels and cause infection in the bloodstream and distant organs.

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.

What kills the Valley fever fungus? ›

In severe or refractory coccidioidal disease, an intravenous amphotericin B formulation is considered the drug of choice. Amphotericin B is a polyene antifungal agent that binds to sterols in the fungal cell membrane causing intracellular components to leak resulting in cell death.

What part of the body does Valley fever affect? ›

People and animals can get sick when they breathe in dust that contains the Valley fever fungus. This fungus usually infects the lungs and can cause respiratory symptoms including cough, fever, chest pain, and tiredness.

Can humans catch Valley fever? ›

People at Risk

Anyone can get Valley fever if they live in, work in, or travel to an area where the fungus lives in the environment. Valley fever can affect people of any age, but it's most common in adults aged 60 and older.

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.

What fungus attacks the brain? ›

Mucormycosis. Also known as black fungus, Mucormycosis is one of the most feared neurological infections. When a fungal infection caused by a group of molds called mucomycetes invades the brain or important blood vessels around the brain, the mortality rate is very high.

What is the zombie virus in the last of us? ›

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 fungi grow on human skin? ›

Fungal infections are caused by microscopic organisms (fungi) that can live on the skin. They can live on the dead tissues of the hair, nails, and outer skin layers.

Can fungi grow in your lungs? ›

When people with lung cavities are also infected with aspergillus, fungus fibers may find their way into the cavities and grow into tangled masses (fungus balls) known as aspergillomas. Aspergillomas may produce no symptoms or cause only a mild cough at first.

What foods fight yeast infection? ›

Yogurt with live bacterial cultures. Fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, and pickles. Supplements containing lactobacillus or acidophilus.

What vitamins help fungal infections? ›

Vitamin C

Vitamin C, also called ascorbic acid, has antimicrobial components, so some people add it to their diet to treat Candida overgrowths. Try increasing your intake of vitamin C to boost your body's ability to beat the yeast infection.

How do I know if I have fungus inside my body? ›

Symptoms of Fungal Infections
  1. Asthma-like symptoms.
  2. Fatigue.
  3. Headache.
  4. Muscle aches or joint pain.
  5. Night sweats.
  6. Weight loss.
  7. Chest pain.
  8. Itchy or scaly skin.

What happens if you have too much fungus in your body? ›

Candida overgrowth can cause several health problems, including digestive issues, fatigue, and joint pain. Addressing the underlying cause can help ease symptoms caused by candidiasis and prevent recurring infections. Many types of fungi live in and on the human body, including the genus of yeasts known as Candida.

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 deficiency causes skin fungal infection? ›

CARD9 deficiency is a genetic immune disorder characterized by susceptibility to fungal infections like candidiasis, which is caused by the yeast fungus Candida.

How do you use Selsun blue for skin fungus? ›

Selsun Blue (selenium sulfide) is a nonprescription medicated shampoo that helps this condition. Apply this shampoo once a day for 14 days. Apply it to the affected skin areas as well as 2 or 3 inches around the spots. Rub it in and let it dry.

What does cordyceps do to the brain? ›

Cordyceps Mushroom for Cognitive Performance

Research has shown that increased oxygen uptake in the brain helps to increase blood flow to brain cells and fight mental fatigue. Cordyceps have been shown to improve many aspects of cognitive performance including learning capacity and memory.

Does cordyceps make you stronger? ›

May Boost Exercise Performance

Cordyceps are thought to increase the body's production of the molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is essential for delivering energy to the muscles. This may improve the way your body uses oxygen, especially during exercise ( 1 , 2).

How do cordyceps affect brain? ›

Our findings suggest that Cordyceps polypeptide may improve learning and memory in the scopolamine-induced mouse model of learning and memory impairment by scavenging oxygen free radicals, preventing oxidative damage, and protecting the nervous system.

Did life come from fungi? ›

Fungi were some of the first complex life forms on land, mining rocks for mineral nourishment, slowly turning them into what would become soil. In the Late Ordovician era, they formed a symbiotic relationship with liverworts, the earliest plants.

Do humans share DNA with fungi? ›

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

Do fungi have DNA? ›

Fungi are eukaryotes and have a complex cellular organization. As eukaryotes, fungal cells contain a membrane-bound nucleus where the DNA is wrapped around histone proteins. A few types of fungi have structures comparable to bacterial plasmids (loops of DNA).

Can a toenail fungus make you sick? ›

A severe case of nail fungus can be painful and may cause permanent damage to your nails. And it may lead to other serious infections that spread beyond your feet if you have a suppressed immune system due to medication, diabetes or other conditions.

Can fungal infection cause death? ›

Fungal diseases can cause serious illness and death.

Can toenail fungus spread through socks? ›

The pathogen that causes toenail fungus is contagious. It thrives in warm, damp, enclosed environments and passes easily from contaminated surfaces to your feet—and back again. This means if you have fungal nails, your socks and shoes do, too, along with any other surface where you may have walked barefoot.

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).

When did humans split from fungi? ›

Vilgalys said scientists estimate that the lineage that included both fungi and animals split off from other eukaryotes about 1 billion years ago, while fungi and plants separated about 600 million years ago.

Can fungi be vaccinated? ›

Abstract. Despite the substantial global burden of human fungal infections, there are no approved fungal vaccines to protect at risk individuals.

Does Valley fever stay in your body forever? ›

Most people who have Valley fever will make a full recovery. A small percent of people develop long-term lung infections that can take several years to get better. In very severe cases of Valley fever, the nervous system can be affected and there may be long-term damage, but this is very rare.

What vitamins help with Valley fever? ›

Valley fever may be prevented and treated with Vitamin D.

Is garlic good for Valley fever? ›

Garlic has antibiotic and antifungal properties that may make it useful in counteracting fungal infections such as Valley Fever. You can make raw garlic more palatable by chopping it fine and mixing it with food.

What are 5 diseases caused by fungi? ›

Other diseases and health problems caused by fungi
  • Aspergillosisplus icon. About. ...
  • Blastomycosisplus icon. About. ...
  • Candidiasisplus icon. Candida infections of the mouth, throat, and esophagus. ...
  • Candida auris.
  • Coccidioidomycosisplus icon. About. ...
  • C. neoformans Infectionplus icon. ...
  • C. ...
  • Fungal Eye Infectionsplus icon.

What time of year do you get Valley fever? ›

People can get Valley fever any time of the year, but more people are likely to be infected with the fungus that causes Valley fever in the late summer and fall than at other times of the year.

Can CBD oil help dogs with Valley fever? ›

Supplemental treatments, including cough suppressants and even CBD oil, have been documented to help dogs with the symptoms of valley fever. CBD oil, or cannabidiol, is extracted from hemp plants and is used to reduce pain and inflammation.

What happens if Valley fever goes to your brain? ›

When coccidioidomycosis spreads to your brain, you can develop coccidioidal meningitis, a life-threatening condition. Symptoms of coccidioidal meningitis include: Headaches.

Can dogs get Valley fever? ›

Like people, dogs are very susceptible to Valley Fever. Dogs primarily contract Valley Fever in the low desert regions of Arizona, New Mexico and southwestern Texas and the central deserts of California.

What triggers Valley fever? ›

Valley fever is caused by a person inhaling spores of certain fungi. The fungi that cause valley fever — Coccidioides immitis or Coccidioides posadasii — live in the soil in parts of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, California, Texas and Washington. It's named after the San Joaquin Valley in California.

What do fungi consume for energy? ›

All fungi are heterotrophic, which means that they get the energy they need to live from other organisms. Like animals, fungi extract the energy stored in the bonds of organic compounds such as sugar and protein from living or dead organisms.

What do fungi need 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. Instead, fungi grow as masses of narrow branched threads called hyphae.

Does fungi feed on bacteria? ›

The fungus may actually eat the bacteria, although it's not clear how. “We think digestive enzymes are involved,” she says. “The interaction between fungi and bacteria certainly deserves further study,” says Duur Aanen at Wageningen University and Research Centre in The Netherlands.

Can fungi generate electricity? ›

Fungal cells generate D.C. and A.C. (action potentials) electrical currents during their growth and differentiation. In addition, they exhibit tropic growth (galvanotropism) and tactic responses (galvanotaxis) in applied electrical fields.

What is the super power of fungi? ›

Some species of fungi can store exceptional levels of carbon underground, keeping it out of the air and preventing it from heating up the Earth's atmosphere. Others help plants survive brutal droughts or fight off pests.

Can fungi produce fuel? ›

Hypoxylon and similar fungi are common in tropical and semitropical plants and the volatile organic compounds they produce may be useable as fuels or fuel additives.

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 we live without fungi? ›

Without fungi to aid in decomposition, all life in the forest would soon be buried under a mountain of dead plant matter. “[Fungi] are the garbage disposal agents of the natural world,” according to Cardiff University biosciences professor Lynne Boddy.

Can fungus grow without oxygen? ›

Fungi thrive in environments that are moist and slightly acidic, and can grow with or without light and oxygen.

Who eats fungi? ›

They are eaten by deer, small mammals such as squirrels and other rodents, birds, turtles, and numerous species of insects. In winter, when the food needs of wildlife are usually critical, mushrooms are particu- larly important, especially to white-tailed deer.

Is fungi a bacteria or virus? ›

Fungi are yet another form of life different from viruses or bacteria. Like animals or plants, they belong to the so-called eukaryotes. These are living organisms whose cells have a nucleus and a rich compartmentalisation.

Does fungi feed on sugar? ›

Fungi usually exhibit the same morphological characteristics in these culture media as they do in nature. Carbon is supplied in the form of sugars or starch; the majority of fungi thrive on such sugars as glucose, fructose, mannose, maltose, and, to a lesser extent, sucrose.


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