Separating science from fiction in The Last of Us

8 Min
Separating science from fiction in The Last of Us

8 Min

Fungi seem fantastic. They do their thing in nature, give us wonderful things like bread, cheese, beer, truffle. Let’s not forget the variety of mushrooms available from food-centric to psychedelic. There are millions of species. And as of late, fungi are getting a bad rep, courtesy of The Last of Us — a new “zombie” HBO show starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, adapted from the 2013 video game. As fans of both the game and show, we found the scientific intricacies fascinating and worthwhile of discussion. Could fungi cause a global pandemic, control the minds of humans and cause the collapse of society? Let’s find out.

The premise.

The Last of Us falls under the post-apocalyptic and horror genre. A mass fungal infection has spread across the world, turning people into zombie-like creatures hellbent on spreading till every last human is infected. It’s a pandemic like no other, with no cure to be found. The fungus in question — are cordyceps. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a common ingredient used in traditional Chinese medication to balance our yin and yang. No doubt fungi can be useful, but mutations are what we’re worried about.


How did the pandemic begin?

In the TV show, the outbreak originated from a fungus outbreak in a flour and grain factory in Jakarta, Indonesia. These consumables were exported around the world, and infected people through ingestion. Yup, infection via pancakes and biscuits. It’s stressful to think about.

But how does this even happen?

The pilot episode does an excellent job in melding real life science with fiction.

It starts off with a talk show panel session in 1968 between 2 scientists who speak about pandemics. It posits that bacterial and viral pandemics are not the real threat — but fungal pandemics are. Fungi have the ability to not just kill, but to control. The scientists bring up a real world example of fungi taking control of an ant — using its body as a puppet. The ant isn’t allowed to die or decompose. Instead, its mind is poisoned and its goal is simple: to spread to all ants.

Oof. Hard hitting stuff, only because it’s true. Cordyceps primarily infect insects. It fills the host’s cavity with mycelium and digests the non-essential parts of the host¹, keeping the insect alive. It then alters the behaviour of the host. In an episode of Planet Earth, David Attenborough narrates soothingly while we watch a zombie ant remove itself from the group, climb high, and eventually self-destructs — raining down spores that infect all the ants in the colony. It’s real.

The panel session gets juicier. What about humans? Fungi cannot currently survive in our warm bodies, but that could change if global temperatures rise. Fungi could potentially evolve, adapt and survive. There’s a chance that what happened to these ants, could happen to us. The scene ends with an uncomfortable silence, then cuts to the year 2003 where this has become a reality. It’s the apocalypse, baby.

Let’s unpack that. We know this: global warming and climate change are real. Global temperatures are rising. While there’s no real evidence that fungi could infiltrate our bodies and act as puppeteers, it’s not entirely improbable. Generally our body temperature protects us — a thermal barrier from fungal infections and diseases². The warming of the planet could allow fungi to adapt and affect humans. It cannot totally be ruled out. In fact, some types of fungi can survive in our bodies³, causing lung diseases.

If you have chills, so do we.

How does it spread?

Screenshot from HBO

In the game, the infection is airborne — that is, it’s spread through spores. Breathe them in, and you’re in danger of turning into the undead.

In the TV show, the infection is not necessarily airborne (yet). It’s a tweak from the source material, so as to give full visibility of the cast’s faces rather than wear gas masks the entire time. The infection is spread through bites and tendrils. Tendrils are a neural network that connect the infected by long fibres of underground fungus⁴. Stepping on a patch of shrooms in one place will alert nearby infected of your location and you’re pretty much doomed.

Screenshot from HBO

In reality, we know spores can easily be inhaled into our lungs, causing issues that range from allergies, to serious illness, depending on your immunity. In biology, the term “hyphae”⁵ is used instead of Tendrils. They are a real underground neural network that create connections in nature between various plants, trees and fungi⁶. They communicate and share nutrients to ensure the joint survival of nature.

The show does an amazing job using science as the basis to create a creative work of fiction.

Some fungal infections we know about.


As we know by now, fungal infections can happen in many different ways beyond spores. Some fungal infections in humans are as follows⁷:

Thrush — caused by a yeast called Candida. Can be cured with antibiotics; fairly common; skin-related.

Candida Auris — When the Candida yeast takes a dangerous turn, it can cause infections in the mouth, genitals, ears, wounds, or worst of all, the bloodstream⁸. This illness was first identified in Japan in 2009. It’s difficult to diagnose, resistant to many anti-fungal drugs and can cause spread; spreads through contact, potentially airborne.

Aspergillosis — A mould infection in the lungs. It is likely we have all breathed in these spores without getting sick⁹. Especially problematic with those with pre-existing lung issues. This type of mould commonly grows on walls, and spreads by airborne spores. Gush Interior Paints have been tested to resist Aspergillus growth.

Cryptococcal Meningitis — The biggest fungus-related killer of humans; airborne. When afflicted, it travels to the brain, causes inflammation, swelling, and results in death.

Should we be concerned about fungal infections?


The short answer is yes. It sounds like the fungal infections we know about are far and few between. That’s because our bodies are well equipped with tools to fight these infections before it gets serious. It’s likely that we’ve breathed in these spores before, and cleared them.

Despite this, researchers in this field have been worried about the possibility of fungal outbreaks for years now². Unlike viruses and bacteria, fungi mutate and spread slower. For these reasons, less time, money and energy is spent on research. We’re missing a big caveat though. What about those who are immunocompromised? They are extremely susceptible. The diagnostics tools we have right now are limited² — it’s difficult to ascertain if an infection is of the fungal nature. By the time we correctly diagnose it, it’s likely too late.

More research is needed.


The WHO released a report in 2021 with a list of health threatening fungi¹⁰. Currently, we only have 4 classes of anti-fungal medications available. Some fungi have already grown resistant to these medications. This places those who are immunocompromised at a very high risk.

Prevention is everything.

As individuals, we don’t have the power to fund research or formulate miracle drugs. What we can do, is to stay informed and take precautions where we can. That’s where Gush comes in.


Gush Interior Paints have been put through rigorous testing for its anti-moulding and anti-bacterial capabilities. As part of the SS150 test requirements for interior paints in Singapore, our paints were inoculated with Aspergillus niger and showed no mould growth for the duration of the test period.

Beyond that, we’ve tested our paints in local malls — particularly areas located near air-conditioning units that suffer from frequent condensation and mould growth. Over a period of 18 months, the Gush-coated surface showed an absolute resistance to mould growth while its surrounding areas were devastated.

What’s the secret science?

Our paints feature 3 anti-mould features in 1. First we have the Gush Absorption Element (GAE) that absorbs and desorbs moisture from Gush-coated surfaces, keeping the surface dry. This means mould spores are deprived of moisture to germinate, and perish. Second, we have antimicrobial agents in our paint that break down mould’s organic structure so they cease to exist. Finally, our Gush Proprietary Catalyst (GPC) creates a unique structural layer on the painted surface that ruptures mould microbe membranes upon contact.

That’s to say, mould has no chance. Besides that, our paints work hard in the background to ensure your air is purified of VOCs 24/7. They’re anti-bacterial, toxic-free, odourless and safe.

In application.

If you live in highly humid countries like Singapore and Hong Kong, you’d be no stranger to mould. Areas close to the coast, or with high air-conditioning usage are especially prone. Gush paints have been the go-to solution deployed in airports, co-working spaces, malls and hospitals to combat mould problems at its source. You know what they say, prevention is the best intervention.

Our paints are formulated with care and love, with the intention of not just looking good as colours on walls, but with real features that work for real people. Life can be unpredictable. We’re strong believers in taking control where we can — and it starts from our homes.


1. National Science Foundation News. Horrifying Reality of Cordyceps | “The Last of Us.” YouTube, 14 Feb. 2023,

2. Scott, Aaron, et al. “The Science That Spawned Fungal Fears in HBO’s ‘The Last of Us.’” NPR , 21 Feb. 2023,

3. “4 Key Things to Know about Lung Infections Caused by Fungi.” Science News,, 10 Jan. 2023,

4. “The Last of Us with Tendrils Would Be an Entirely Different Game | The Loadout.” The Loadout, the show%2C the cordyceps,know exactly where you are. Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.

5. Libretexts. “24.1B: Fungi Cell Structure and Function - Biology LibreTexts.” Biology LibreTexts, Libretexts, 15 July 2018,

6. “Underground Networking: The Amazing Connections Beneath Your Feet - National Forest Foundation.” National Forest Foundation, Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.

7. Goodyer, Jason. “The Last Of Us: Fungal Infections Are a Growing Threat, but Don’t Worry, They Won’t Turn Us into Zombies | BBC Science Focus Magazine.” BBC Science Focus Magazine - Science, Nature, Technology, Q&As - BBC Science Focus Magazine, BBC Science Focus Magazine, 21 Feb. 2023,

8. Brink, Susan. “New Medical Worry: Deadly Fungal Infection That Resists Treatment.” NPR, 24 Jan. 2017,

9. “Aspergillosis | Types of Fungal Diseases | Fungal Diseases | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is an infection caused,every day without getting sick. Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.

10. “WHO Releases First-Ever List of Health-Threatening Fungi.” World Health Organization (WHO), Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.

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