Could a fungal infection turn us all into zombies? Cedar News

Let me introduce you to something really terrifying: a fungus that turns its victims into zombies.

Its spores (reproductive cells) enter the body, then the fungus grows and begins hijacking the mind of its host until it loses control.

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The parasitic fungus devours its victim from the inside, extracting all the nutrients from it, while preparing for the big end. Then, in a scene more disturbing than any horror film, it explodes, spreading its spores on everything in the place, and exterminating the others with the same fate as zombies.

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Seems like a work of imagination. But the kingdom of fungi, distinct from plants and animals, ranges from edible mushrooms to nightmare-inducing parasites.

The parasitic fungi species Cordyceps and Ophiocordyceps are very real.

Here, in the BBC’s Planet Earth series, Sir David Attenborough watches someone take control of an ant: this clip of zombie ants inspired The Last of Us, perhaps the best video game you’ve ever played, and now a hit TV series that follows the same plot.

In both the game and on TV, the Cordyceps fungus goes from preying on its usual insect victims, to infecting humans. The resulting epidemic leads to the collapse of society.

But in the real world, is a Cordyceps epidemic, or a pandemic caused by other fungi, likely?

“I think we underestimate fungal infections,” Dr Neil Stone, a leading fungal expert at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London, told me.

“We’ve been doing this for far too long and we’re completely unprepared to deal with a fungal epidemic,” he added.

At the end of October last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its first list of life-threatening fungi.

There are some dangerous fungi out there, but you’ll be relieved to know that cordyceps zombies don’t appear on the WHO list.

An insect that is consumed by a parasitic fungus, with its reproductive cells called spores

Getty Images
An insect that is consumed by a parasitic fungus, with its reproductive cells called spores

Dr. Carissa de Becker, a microbiologist at Utrecht University, has studied how Cordyceps creates zombie ants and says she doesn’t expect the same thing to happen to humans.

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She explained, “Our body temperature is too high for most fungi to settle down and grow well, and that goes for Cordyceps. And the nervous system of ants is simpler than ours, so it would certainly be easier to hijack an insect’s brain than ours, and their immune systems are completely different.”

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Most species of the parasitic Cordyceps fungus have evolved over millions of years to specialize in infecting only one type of insect, and most are not transmitted from one insect to another.

“The ability of this fungus to jump from an insect to us and cause an infection is a pretty big leap,” says Dr. de Becker.

The threats posed by fungi have long been dismissed. “People see it as trivial or superficial or unimportant,” says Dr. Stone.

Only a handful of the millions of species of fungi cause disease. The fungus kills about 1.7 million people annually, about three times the number of malaria victims.

Greater lethal threats than cordyceps

The World Health Organization has identified 19 different types of fungus that it believes are of greatest concern.

These include the sudden appearance of the deadly superbug Auris fungus, the fungus Mucormycetes, which eats our flesh at such speed that it results in serious facial infections.

Dr Neil Stone invited me to the HSL laboratory in London where samples from UK patients are being analyzed to see if their infection is caused by a fungus and what treatments might work. We discuss some of the biggest fungal dangers.

Neil Stone

James Gallagher
We ignore the fungus Auris, says Dr. Neil Stone

The auris mushroom is our first concern. It is a fermenting fungus associated with breweries, or bread dough.

If this fungus enters the body, it can invade the blood, nervous system and internal organs. The World Health Organization estimates that up to half of people die if they become infected with the auris fungus.

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“It’s a monster that’s been around for the last 15 years or so, but now it’s all over the world,” says Dr. Stone.

The first documented case was in the ear of a patient at the Tokyo Metropolitan Geriatric Hospital in 2009.

auris fungus is resistant to antifungal drugs, and some strains are resistant to all the drugs we have, which is why it is considered a super fungus.

Infection occurs mainly through contaminated surfaces in hospitals where it sticks to intravenous lines and blood pressure cuffs. They are really difficult to remove with cleaning, and often the solution is to close the entire wards. It even happened in the UK.

Dr. Stone says these fungi are “the most concerning and we ignore them at our peril, and if they break out they could shut down entire healthcare systems.”

Another deadly fungus, Cryptococcus neoformans, is capable of reaching people’s nervous systems and causing devastating meningitis.

Sid and Ellie are in the early days of their honeymoon in Costa Rica when Ellie begins to feel ill.

Her initial symptoms were headaches and nausea, which are symptoms of too much sun, but then she started shaking severely and had full-blown seizures. She had to be taken in a boat to get medical help.

“I have never seen anything more terrifying,” Syed told me, “especially since I felt so helpless.”

Scans showed swelling in her brain and tests identified Cryptococcus. Fortunately, Ellie responded to treatment. I came out of coma after 12 days of using a ventilator.

“I just remember screaming,” she says. She would hallucinate that she had triplets and that her husband had gambled with their money. “So the first thing I said was, ‘It’s over,'” she says.

Ellie is now recovering well. She says she “never thought” a fungus could do something like this to a person. “Don’t think you’re going on a honeymoon and almost dying.”

Mucormycetes, also known as black fungus, causes flesh-eating disease. And she has a nickname that reveals her malicious nature…the lid lifter.

Mucormycetes fungi can grow incredibly fast

James Gallagher
Mucormycetes fungi can grow incredibly fast

spread quickly. This photo shows that after only 24 hours of growth in a glass dish, she can lift the lid.

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“When you have a piece of fruit and the next day it turns into mush, it’s because it has mucormycetes in it,” says Dr Rebecca Gorton, a clinical detection scientist at the Health Services Laboratory (HSL) in London. It is rare in humans, she says, but it can be a “really serious infection”.

The black fungus is an opportunist that takes hold in people with weakened immune systems. It attacks the face, eyes and brain and can be fatal or leave people severely disfigured. And Dr. Gorton warned that infection with this fungus “spreads quickly” in the body, as it happens in fruit or in the laboratory.

During the Covid pandemic, there was an outbreak of black fungus cases in India that caused the death of more than 4,000 people. It is believed that the steroids taken to combat Covid, which weaken the immune system, with high levels of diabetes, have helped the multiplication of this fungus.

Should we take fungi more seriously?

Fungi are very different types from bacterial or viral infections. When a fungus makes us sick, it is almost always picked up from the environment rather than through coughing and sneezing.

We are all exposed to fungi regularly, but they often need a weakened immune system in order to spread. Medicine also keeps many people alive – such as those receiving certain cancer treatments – so many of us have weakened immune systems.

Dr Stone says a fungal pandemic is likely to take a “different form” from Covid in terms of how it spreads and the type of people it infects.

It is believed that the danger exists due to “the volume of fungi in the environment, climate change, international travel, and the increase in the number of cases and their neglect.”

Fungi may not turn us all into zombies, but they can cause serious problems.

Responsibility for the news: Cedar News is not responsible for this news in form or content, and it only expresses the point of view of its source or writer.

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