– Do you think microorganisms are a threat?
– Yes, in an extreme way.
– Neither bacteria nor viruses, then?
The dialogue above is part of the series “The Last of Us,” which premiered last Sunday (15th), on HBO. The story is inspired by the game of the same name, originally released in 2013 for the PlayStation 3.
In the aforementioned scene, set in 1968, two specialists are interviewed about the possibility of new epidemics. Mushrooms are pointed to as the big danger – and that’s exactly what we’re following in the sequence.
The series shows several people contaminated by the microorganism and then turned into zombies.
Impossible not to think of the fictional story in a real life scenario, especially after the covid-19 pandemic. So, Live well he spoke to doctors and biologists to figure out if this could become a reality. (Warning: the text below may contain spoilers).
The mushroom of the series exists
In fiction it is Cordyceps that controls the minds of human beings. It really exists and is part of a genus that has more than 600 described species, mainly infecting insects and other arthropods (such as scorpions, spiders, etc.), according to biologist Anderson Messias Rodrigues, professor and head of the Laboratory of Emerging Fungal Pathogens from Unifesp.
“The most famous example we know of is that of the mushroom Ophiocordyceps unilateralcapable of altering the behavior of the host ant, turning it into a ‘zombie,'” he says.
The infected ant will have its behavior controlled by the parasite and hence, the mushroom is called a “zombie mushroom”. “But, contrary to what is shown in the game and in the series, the infected insects do not have aggressive behaviors like the characters,” says Rafael Wesley Bastos, biologist and professor in the Department of Microbiology and Parasitology at UFRN (University of Rio Grande do Norte ). .
The situation is unlikely, but not impossible.
Rest assured, a zombie apocalypse caused by a fungus that can control the human mind is very unlikely, although it is not impossible.
In biology or medicine, it’s hard to say that it’s impossible for anything to happen. If in 2018 someone said that we would soon experience a pandemic of a new virus, most people would think it was science fiction. Therefore, we prefer the term improbable. Rafael Wesley Bastos, biologist and professor in the Department of Microbiology and Parasitology of UFRN (University of Rio Grande do Norte)
Why it would be unlikely:
- Brain manipulation by the fungus occurs only in certain natural hosts, such as carpenter ants and some insects.
- So to infect humans and other animals, the fungus would have to undergo major changes that would take millions of years.
- Most fungi cannot grow satisfactorily above room temperature (25°C), which makes our ability to control body temperature — between 36°C and 37°C — an important defense against fungi, including the Cordyceps.
- Our immune system is able to recognize and eliminate fungal cells that come into contact with our body, establishing a protective response, preventing the development of diseases.
If it happened, would we have a vaccine for it?
No, as there is currently no vaccine against mushrooms. Studies and research are underway for some types of mushrooms.
“What exists are some yeast vaccines for use in animals. In this way, the therapy against fungal infections in humans is given through drugs called antifungals,” says Bastos.
According to doctors consulted by Live wellproducing a vaccine against a fungus is difficult due to its structure, which is considered to be much more complex than that of a virus, for example.
For now, we’re not ready for a zombie apocalypse like the series. We didn’t even prepare for a virus that came from China. Imagine for a mushroom, which is something much more complex? Filipe Prohaska, infectious disease specialist at SB extension (Brazilian Society of Infectious Diseases) and Oswaldo Cruz Hospital, a unit attached to UPE (University of Pernambuco)
Can any fungi affect the brain?
These fungi won’t make us zombies, but there are more serious cases, where some microorganisms cause diseases that can reach the central nervous system. Appearance:
Cryptococcosis (pigeon disease)
The infection occurs due to the fungus that develops in the feces of pigeons or, in other cases, in decomposing wood. Contamination occurs mainly when the animal’s poop becomes dry and dehydrated, spreading the spores of the fungus into the air. While inhaling, the person contracts the disease, which can range from the lung to the central nervous system.
According to Flávio Telles, an infectologist at the SBI (Brazilian Society of Infectious Diseases) and professor at the UFPR (Federal University of Paraná), most people come into contact with the fungus, but develop nothing. But in some situations, depending on the amount inhaled or if the person is immunosuppressed, the disease can be serious.
“It’s a brutal headache, which doesn’t get better with medication. It causes fever and the person can have neurological alterations, such as loss of vision and hearing, paralysis, among others,” he says.
Disease caused by the fungus of the genus Sporothrix, which has already caused outbreaks in regions of Brazil. It is transmitted from sick cats to people through scratches, bites or direct contact with broken skin.
The most common symptom is skin damage and conjunctivitis, but it can rarely cause meningitis, affecting the person’s brain. This is more common in patients with compromised immunity.
At the height of the pandemic, the disease became known as “black fungus” and mainly affected patients who were being treated for covid and were using drugs that affected immunity.
In general, they can be aspirated from the patient or enter through the tubes and catheters connected to the veins. But it’s important to remember that it’s a rare disease, which can cause manifestations that affect the skin, lungs, and even the brain.
“The disease has a mortality rate of 70% and is one of the deadliest. The main risk factor is uncontrolled diabetes and immunosuppressed people (transplant recipients, undergoing chemotherapy, for example),” says Telles.
How important are mushrooms?
- Mushrooms are essential for human existence, as they are involved in the production of some medicines (the antibiotic penicillin, for example) and foods (such as bread, beer and mushrooms).
- Mushrooms are part of our body and play an important role in maintaining, for example, the proper functioning of the intestine.
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