Experts: The science behind 'The Last of Us'

Published: 23 January 2023

HBO’s hotly anticipated TV adaptation of the acclaimed The Last of Us game series premiered on January 15, showcasing the world after a devastating fungal pandemic wiped out most of humanity, a fictional brain infection that experts say is inspired by a very real set of fungi that can hijack their hosts and turn them into zombies. (Forbes)

Here are some experts from McGill University who can provide comment on this topic:

Jennifer Ronholm, Assistant Professor, Departments of Animal Science and Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry

“There are indeed several fungal pathogens that change the behaviour of their hosts. For example, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis sensu lato can manipulate the behaviour of the insect host in some pretty specular ways. There are also some very well-known pathogens that change human behaviour – rabies and toxoplasmosis are the top examples that come to mind. There is an increased chance of someone who has just had COVID-19 developing a fungal infection, and a paper that was recently published, by researchers from McGill University and the University of Calgary, shows that the immune system is deeply impaired at fighting fungal infections immediately after SARS-CoV2 infection. So, could a fungal infection which alters human behaviour cause a pandemic? I don't see why not.”

Jennifer Ronholm is an Assistant Professor cross-appointed to the Departments of Animal Science and Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry. Her research interests include using the latest next-generation sequencing techniques to study how the microbiome of food-producing animals affects food quality, as well as how the microbiome of the food we eat affects human health.

jennifer.ronholm [at] (English)

Donald Vinh, Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases

“The combination of climate change, advances in medicine, and limited antifungals is the perfect recipe for a fungal scourge. Fungi are already adapting to warmer temperature and expanding their location, leading to more infections. Meanwhile, advances in medicine lead to more susceptible patients, and the antifungal drugs available are losing their efficacy. The fungal scourge may not be as flagrant as a viral pandemic, but through the growing infections in at-risk humans and the subtle destruction of crops and wildlife, the ramifications could be just as devastating.”

Donald Vinh is an Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine and an Associate Member in the Departments of Experimental Medicine, Human Genetics and Microbiology and Immunology. His research focuses on identifying genetic defects of the immune system that explain why certain individuals are prone to infections.

donald.vinh [at] (English, French)

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