Cordyceps Zombie: Did The Last of Us Get It Wrong?
February 15, 2023

Cordyceps Zombie: Did The Last of Us Get It Wrong?

In the HBO television series The Last of Us, humans struggle to survive after an infectious fungus turns ordinary people into zombies. The plot takes place twenty years after a mutant Cordyceps fungus causes a global pandemic that ravages the planet. Survivors Joel (played by actor Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (played by actress Bella Ramsey) are tasked with a survival mission that could change everything.

This article will answer your most pressing questions about the mysterious Cordyceps fungus. We'll cut through the fiction to help you sleep better at night, equipped with the information you need to thwart off fears that linger after watching another weekly episode. 

Spoiler alert: Don't worry, health supplements containing Cordyceps will not turn you into a zombie within hours of exposure! 

What is Cordyceps?

Cordyceps is a fungus that lives on the bodies of insects like ants and caterpillars. This fungus has unique parasitic characteristics and will attack its host and influence its behavior. In later stages, it sprouts long, slender stems that grow outside of the host's body from which the mushroom can produce spores and complete its life cycle. The remains of the insect host and the fungus are collected at this stage, dried, and processed to treat a variety of health concerns.

HBO’s television series The Last of Us presents some interesting and creative ideas. The idea of a fungus altering the behavior of ants (Summit Disease) and other insects was an intriguing starting point, and the concept of a fungus controlling human behavior is truly frightening. However, in real life, Cordyceps fungus has been safely used as a natural supplement in Chinese medicine for thousands of years.

Are Zombie Fungi Real?

To put it simply, yes, but not in the suspenseful way this television series portrays it. To keep things in perspective, consider how many biological processes in the human body are already influenced (or zombified) by fungi. For example, our gastrointestinal tracts are home to a plethora of beneficial fungi and bacteria. Their pervasiveness can have a variety of effects, ranging from positive, protective, and beneficial to harmful or deadly.

Also, many compounds influence our behavior when we consume them—psilocybin and alcohol produced with fermentation by yeast (a fungus) are prime examples; the cordycepin in Cordyceps and the hericenones and erinacines in Lion’s Mane are others.

Will Cordyceps Turn Me Into a Zombie?

The fictional storyline of Cordyceps mushrooms rapidly mutating in response to global warming is highly unlikely—evolutionary timelines are much longer. In fact, many of the Cordyceps species are very specific about which insect species they can infect. It would be difficult to "jump" to another insect host, let alone humans. 

To take a closer look from a mycological point of view, the images and scenes presented in The Last of Us television series are a real hodgepodge of mushroom-inspired ideas. Many of the grotesque growths featured in episodes resemble slime molds rather than fungi. 

In certain scenes, mushroom fruiting bodies emerging from zombie's heads resemble C. sinensis fruiting bodies. Other growths on walls and surfaces resemble gilled mushroom fruiting bodies, while some resemble polypores. However, to allay all your fears, and to be very clear, taking a Cordyceps supplement will not cause any of the above dramatic events to occur or turn you into a Cordyceps zombie.

Why Is a Fungus That Turns Insects Into Cordyceps Zombies Used in Supplements?

The Last of Us storyline based on a mutant Cordyceps fungus infecting human hosts is a fantastic piece of fiction with a well-deserved reputation as a suspenseful post-apocalyptic television series. However, it’s important to know that Corcecyps and other functional mushrooms have been safely used for centuries and contain beta-d-glucans, prebiotics, antioxidants, and many bioactive compounds that can contribute to better health. 

In fact, Cordecyps and other functional mushroom supplements can be taken in powdered, tinctured, or capsule form for easy consumption. Many are dehydrated and milled into powders, enabling consumers to mix the recommended serving into delicious, zombie-free recipes, drinks, and smoothies to enjoy at any time of day (or night). 


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Functional mushroom products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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