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Fungus from The Last of Us is not dangerous in real life and can be used in medicine

The destruction of modern civilization due to a pandemic caused by a fungus illustrates the scenario of the hit series The Last of Us , from HBO Max. The final episode of the first season was shown on Sunday (12) and is available on the streaming platform.

The series mixes elements of reality and fiction to narrate the world impacted by the infection of humans by a fungus of the genus Cordyceps . This type of fungus exists, but in real life it is known for its ability to parasitize insects, such as ants and caterpillars, and manage to control the host’s behavior, which becomes a type of “zombie”.

However, he is unable to infect humans – as in the series, due to his high body temperature. The fictional narrative creates a context in which this species manages to evolve over time due to climate change and global warming, acquiring the ability to parasitize humans and control them.

“There are no known species of fungi of the genus Cordyceps capable of surviving in the human body and causing death in the manner seen in the series. Fungi can mutate, but we don’t know if a pandemic due to a fungal infection can be caused one day, but it seems to me a very remote possibility”, explains the researcher from the Development and Innovation Laboratory (LDI), at the Butantan Institute, Ana Olivia de Souza, in a statement.

In nature, there are more than 400 species of fungi in the genus Cordyceps alone. Of these, the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is the one that acts most similarly to the series – only on insects.

“This fungus actually turns the ant into a zombie because it secretes neurotoxins inside the animal, which then compromise the functioning of the insect’s muscles, altering its behavior in the anthill. After being infected, the ant becomes bewildered and starts looking for more illuminated places, and ends up leaving the anthill. In this process, it spreads the spores of the fungus that already take over your body”, explains biotechnologist Tainah Colombo Gomes, from Ana Olívia’s team.

How the fungus works in real life

The fungus infection – lasting from 2 to 5 days – turns the ant’s body whitish, with an appearance similar to mold. Filled with microscopic spores inside and out, the ant’s limbs begin to be paralyzed by neurotoxins. Unable to move, the ant dies and the waste from its inert body remains useful as food for the fungus.

This reproduction process Ophiocordyceps unilateralis has guaranteed its survival, says the senior technician at the Development and Innovation Laboratory (LDI), Rafael Conrado.

“This fungus causes the ant to have a very specific behavior: when leaving the anthill, it clings to a nearby plant and, already fixed, the fruiting body grows on its head, which is the reproductive organ of the fungus. This is where Cordyceps releases its spores, which can infect other ants right there, be deposited in the soil, or be carried by wind or insects to other places”, describes Conrado, in a statement.

There is, however, a reaction on the part of the anthill. Upon identifying that one of the ants is infected, the colony mobilizes to prevent mass infection.

“In the anthill, the workers notice the strange behavior of the ants that act like zombies and then remove them from the anthill so that they do not have contact with the others. They are not rational like us, but they find a way to eliminate the infected to protect the others”, says researcher Ana Olívia.

The “zombie” fungus

O Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, also known as “zombie fungus”, was discovered by the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in 1859. Currently, the species is predominantly found in tropical forests, such as the Amazon. It infects carpenter ants, of the species Camponotus cruentatuswhich feed on fungi and live in hot and humid places, environments that facilitate their proliferation.

Biotechnologist Luiz Gustavo Ribeiro explains that the relationship between the fungus O. unilateralis and the ant is the result of a long process of evolution, and indicates that the insect carries the necessary conditions for the survival of the parasite.

“Over the years, the fungus has adapted to the ant organism, whose body temperature is different from that of humans, and the nervous system is much less complex. At the beginning of the contact between them, perhaps there was a beneficial relationship, both for the ant and for the fungus, which would have helped in this process. In order to develop in a human body, the fungus would have to go through many adaptations and still find a body with a very weakened immune system”, says Ribeiro, a doctoral student at LDI.

Use in medicines

Specialists from the Butantan Institute claim that other species of Cordyceps fungi have beneficial qualities, including for human health. species like cordyceps cicadae, cordyceps sinensis It is cordyceps militarisfor example, are widely used in traditional Chinese medicine.

“The three species are described as producing compounds with different pharmacological properties: anti-inflammatory, antitumor, immunomodulatory, nephroprotective and hepatoprotective. Fungi of the genus Cordyceps, which are beneficial, have been considered a rare commodity in China,” says Ana Olívia, a postdoctoral fellow in biochemistry at the Faculty of Medicine of Ribeirão Preto, who studies the pharmacological application of substances produced by different species of fungi.

In the field of medicine, the use of microorganisms that can be harmful in nature as a basis for the production of drugs is common. One of the most emblematic cases is that of penicillin, the discovery of a fungus, which has become one of the main antibiotics in the world.

At the Butantan Institute, scientists One of LDI’s lines of research includes a study that addresses the healing and antimicrobial action of molecules produced by fungi. The aim is to use them in different products, including an ointment for wound healing and/or a product with an antibiotic action.

“In our research, fungi are also used to develop nanomaterials that may have pharmaceutical applications and to fight fungi that are harmful to grain production in agriculture”, concludes Ana Olívia.

(With information from the Butantan Institute Communication)

Source: CNN Brasil

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