It’s Possible You’ve Taken the Deadly Fungus From “The Last of Us”

Cordyceps is a mainstay in Gwyneth Paltrow's breakfast smoothie

A sample of the cordyceps sinensis fungus.
This thing probably won't change your life...for better or for worse.
ximushushu/Getty Images

The global market share for mushrooms swelled to a $50 billion valuation over the last few years, as consumers have come to rely on the kingdom of fungi for plant-based alternatives, adaptogenic health supplements and psychedelic-assisted therapy.

Mushrooms — used for so long that Europe’s oldest known human mummy, known as Ötzi the Iceman, was discovered with multiple strains in his first aid kit — have never been this popular. And that popularity is only poised to grow from here through 2030.

The only obstacle that could stand in their way, say…might be a monocultural smash hit on HBO in which the overwhelming majority of the planet’s human beings are subsumed by a flesh-eating fungal infection.

It’s true: The Last of Us, the latest, proverbial Monday-morning-water-cooler intrigue, is an apocalyptic show that isn’t just about a pandemic or zombies, but both, and unifies/refreshes those trite devices with an assist from cordyceps, a jungle-dwelling form of Ascomycota that’s famous for consuming insects.

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Click through that link, assuming you’ve digested breakfast. Cordyceps’ parasitic capacity to infect ants, control their movements, spread spores to other hosts and eventually sprout a full stalk through their bodies, was video game designer Neil Druckmann’s original inspiration for The Last of Us (released in 2013).

In his fictional world, which he’s now adapted with Craig Mazin (the showrunner on Chernobyl) for HBO, human beings are at the mercy of cordyceps. The opening scene of the new series shows a scientist on a late night appearance in the last 1960s, warning an audience that if the planet were to warm a couple degrees, the fungus might have a reason to evolve…and find warmer hosts than its usual insects — as warm as 98.6 F°. He proves morbidly prescient.

Still, will watching this ensuing chaos (nearly five million people tuned in on HBO’s first day, its biggest “opening” since 2010) be enough to temper our budding love of mushrooms? Probably not. Consider: mushroom supplements are often marketed under wellness buzzword umbrellas: nootropics, extracts, super coffees, clarity powders.

And while we could interpret an unlikely link between the apocalypse and health supplements as a subtextual reminder that we should be more discerning about what we put in our bodies, cordyceps consumption has been standardized for a while now. It’s been used to treat everything from coughs to tinnitus to problems in the bedroom, to varying degrees of success. (Gwyneth Paltrow even dumps it in her morning smoothie, because of course she does.)

So feel free to continue down whatever mushroom-lined path you’ve been traveling, with trust that you won’t be transformed into an ant phantom. There’s a much better chance of these supplement brands making good on improving your focus or memory or confidence…though there’s some suspension of disbelief required there, too.

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