Warning: probably some incredibly mild spoilers below regarding the game.
The Last of Us is a new survival action horror videogame for the Playstation 3. The game is inspired by a real life fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. Any time fungi get love in popular culture, I’m pretty happy. I’ve long thought that fungi are a hugely underused resource for science fiction, and I think that cordyceps species are starting to gain some traction in the popular press.
I’ve only played a couple of hours of the game (as I’m supposed to be writing my dissertation, and don’t own a playstation). That said, I thought I’d comment on the mycology as I come across it.
Beautiful fanart of a Clicker by thomaswievegg. http://thomaswievegg.deviantart.com/art/the-Last-of-Us-Clicker-355277629
These zombies have mutated to the point that their heads have sprouted fungal fruiting structures. The problem is that their heads really strike me as bracket fungi (conks), and their shoulders are fruiting gilled mushrooms. Ophiocordyceps are ascomycetes. Gilled mushrooms, and conks, are produced by basidiomycetes: a phylum level distinction. For context, two animal phyla include chordata and annelida: the distance between segmented worms and animals with a spinal chord (ie, us). That said, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fruits out of the head of its victim- much like a Clicker.
The Turkey Tail bracket fungus. Photo credit: wikipedia
As the credits roll, we are treated to some weird, pulsing “fungal” growth, followed by fruiting body formation and spore dispersal.
It’s beautiful, it’s creepy, it’s everything we love about fungi. But what are we really looking at? To me, the first bit looks distinctly like a slime mold. This is a claim I’ve made before, in reference to The Blob.
Hyphal-like growth but the pulsing is really more like a slime mold.
Next, the fungus forms fruiting bodies.
Fruiting bodies form and disperse spores.
These really could pass for a cordyceps fruiting structure. Generally, the stalks typical of cordyceps form out of the host species, which may be the case here. In the game, areas thick with spores are encountered around freshly killed infected humans- a pleasing consistency.
Watch the intro video here.
Thank you Naughty Dog, for a great zombie game, and some fun biology! Maybe if I get the chance to play through more of it, I’ll be able to write more about the fungal biology underlying the zombies (mycozombies?).