‘The Last of Us’ zombie fungal parasite is real and causes ants to commit suicide
The world can be a scary place. Global pandemics, catastrophic climate change. But humans have made it this far, so why bat an eye at a deadly zombie fungus?
HBO’s highly anticipated TV adaptation of the award-winning "Last of Us" video game series premiered on Sunday, featuring an alternate universe in which most of humanity is wiped out from a fictional fungal infection that brings about flesh-eating zombies and more.
While the show has been praised as the highest-rated series currently on IMDB, the inspiration for the terrifying apocalyptic world is unfortunately something that is very real.
"The Last of Us," is set in current day United States in which the world has been overrun by hordes of zombies infected with a variation of a cordyceps fungus which keeps its hosts alive feasting on human flesh in order to continue to spread the disease.
Nicknamed the "zombie fungus," cordyceps has been studied by the scientific community for years. It can even be found in some of the supplements you take.
What exactly is cordyceps?
Most cordyceps are parasitic. In fact, the fungus includes approximately 600 species which mainly spread by infecting insects with spores. Each variation of cordyceps sticks with one species of insect.
The spores of the cordyceps have been observed to cause the insects they infect to be erratic before the fungus eventually takes control of the host's minds and motor functions.
The insect eventually dies and a tendril will grow out of it in which more spores are released in hopes of spreading the fungus to other insects.
The fungus creates "zombie ants" and hijacks their jaws to cause suicide
According to research published in 2019, scientists observed one variation of the fungus infecting ant populations.
In the Journal of Experimental Biology, ants that come in contact with the deadly fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis have their jaw muscles taken over until they eventually die.
The study's lead author, Colleen Mangold, notes that the fungus does not attack their brains directly. Instead "the mandibular muscles ... of infected ants are extensively colonized by the fungus," she said in a statement.
Mangold, along with her other researchers found that the infected muscles showed evidence of hypercontraction as the ants clamped their jaws tightly onto a leaf vein or twig.
"Despite the extensive colonization, both motor neurons and neuromuscular junctions appear to be maintained," the study's abstract reads. "Infection results in sarcolemmal damage, but this is not specific to the death grip. We found evidence of precise penetration of muscles by fungal structures and the presence of extracellular vesicle-like particles, both of which may contribute to mandibular hypercontraction."
Ultimately, the ant dies as it's consumed from within by the fungus. Then, spores of the deadly fungus drop below from the stalk that grows out of the dead ant in hopes of finding a new host.
The fungus is largely found in ants that live in tropical climates such as Brazil, Africa and Thailand.
Mangold's research follows up on a 2017 study into the deadly effects of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.
FOX News contributed to this story.