Could fungi rule the world like in HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’? Probably not, says Ontario professor

Click to play video: 'Travel Alberta sharing The Last of Us locations online'
Travel Alberta sharing The Last of Us locations online
Travel Alberta sharing 'The Last of Us' locations online – Feb 13, 2023

The Last of Us is the latest in a long line of HBO shows that have seemingly caught the collective zeitgeist of TV fanatics in North America.

The opening scene (and stop reading here if you have not watched it yet) sets the stage for the post-apocalyptic plague to follow.

It features a talk show with a couple of epidemiologists discussing plagues but one says he is more concerned by the catastrophic potential of fungi.

The epidemiologist points to global warming as the potential agent to allow certain types of fungi, which are deadly to other organisms, the ability to evolve and attack humans.

While there is some truth to the discussion, a microbiologist from the University of Guelph says that in reality, it would take millions of years for the transformation of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis that occurs in the Last of Us.

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But Rebecca Shapiro, whose research includes microbial fungal pathogens and how they cause disease in humans, says that does not mean people should dismiss concern for fungal infections.

Click to play video: 'HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ boosts Alberta’s tourism, economy'
HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ boosts Alberta’s tourism, economy

She says the concern should lie in fungal infections accompanying pandemics, with a specific example occurring in 2021 when there was an epidemic of mucormycosis (or black fungus) in India affecting patients who were in hospital after contracting COVID-19.

“But fungal infections are becoming more prevalent,” Shapiro explained. “These infections are more widespread, which is heightening concerns.”

As the population continues to age, and those with other health concerns being more vulnerable, fungi can cause more infections which Shapiro says are more difficult to treat.

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“On a cellular level, fungal organisms are remarkably similar to the humans they infect, meaning it’s very difficult to identify non-toxic antifungal agents that can kill a fungal pathogen without causing harm to its human host,” she stated.

“Limited antifungal agents mean many fungal infections can be life-threatening.”

This does not mean that humans need to go on any sort of campaign to eradicate all fungi.

“An overwhelming majority of fungi are not dangerous to humans or any other species,” Shapiro said.

“Fungi play a critical role in nutrient cycling in our ecosystems and support the survival and growth of almost all plant species.”

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