HBO Max / Screenshot via NPR
From a scientific perspective, the new HBO show The last of us tells us whopper-a whopper expertise.
In the show, climate change has caused the rise of a new pathogen that is going around the world infecting people, turning them into the undead and controlling their brains.
But the cause of the contagion is strange. “No bacteria? No virus?” a TV journalist asks a scientist before a live audience in the first episode.
“Fungus,” the scientist replies. the listeners laugh.
“Yes, as usual,” says the scientist.
He then goes on to explain why fungi are such a threat to humans, showing the belief that rising temperatures on Earth will force them to be more infectious to humans.
When I looked at this scene, I admit that I was also very excited. “A fungus to destroy humanity? Come on.” I thought “That’s not even a remote possibility.”
But then, with this story, I began to experience the possibility of a pandemic caused by the fungus, and I admit: I was wrong. I didn’t have a chuckle – not even a little. Because the evidence is generating—real evidence—that climate change is actually making this type of pathogen more dangerous to humans.
Virus v. What is the greater danger to humanity?
I have been talking about infectious diseases for the past decade. I have often asked scientists, “What keeps you up at night? What kinds of pathogens could cause a terrible pandemic?” Every time I heard one type of pathogen, over and over again: viruses. The specific family of men scientists worry about varies, but it’s usually influenza, like the coronavirus or the paramyxovirus (which causes horrible diseases like Nipah and Hendra).
No one ever said “mushrooms” in response to my question. But the fungus has never caused a huge pandemic, like what the world is experiencing with COVID-19. The plan? Viruses have several important advantages over fungi when it comes to infecting humans. First of all, they spread much faster.
“So the great advantage, if you will, of a virus is that one viral particle can become a thousand particles in a very short time,” said Dr. Aileen Maria Marty, who is an infectious disease specialist at Florida International University and has worked. at the World Health Organization on several recent outbreaks, including Ebola in West Africa in 2014 and Zika in 2016.
“Besides,” said Marty. [the virus] produces more viral particles, has a propensity for mutations.
That tendency to mutate means that viruses can mutate and evolve much faster than fungi. “These changes can lead to a new version that can be faster and more dangerous,” Mart said. So all of a sudden – say, in a few weeks – the virus can start to evade people’s immune systems. Then in a flash, the whole world is once again taken over by the virus, as we have experienced with the omicron and its myriad variants.
Here’s the key part: Fungi generally can’t do this, studies have shown. They mutate about 10,000 times slower than viruses, on average, scientists have estimated. (The exact estimate depends on the specific virus and fungus).
In addition, Marty emphasizes, people who have healthy immune systems can fight off fungal infections before they become dangerous. “The fact is that most immuno-competent people are not harmed by the fungus in their body.” The same cannot be said of many viruses.
So I ask Marty, “If you had to put money on what’s going to cause the next pandemic, would you put it on a fungus or a virus?”
“I would put a husband. I don’t want to,” he said without hesitation. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to fungi because many, many, many, many people die every year from fungal infections.” In fact, more than 1.6 million people die from fungal infections every year. And there is growing concern that these deaths are due in part to climate change.
Fungi are changing – and could become more infectious to people
This is where the show comes in The Last of Us he has the right knowledge – or at least partially right. Most fungi live in the Earth’s environment, such as in soil and on plants. They can’t survive in humans because humans are too hot, says Laura Goodman, who studies pathogen genomics at Cornell University.
But as a scientist in the first issue of words The Last of Us explains: “Currently, there are no methods of developing fungi to be able to withstand higher temperatures. But what if this changes? [a] cause to develop “.
In other words, could fungi change the climate pressures to survive in higher temperatures, like the human body, which could more easily infect people?
There is some evidence that this process is already happening, at least in one species of fungus called White ears. The species is emerging, first detected in the ear of a woman in Japan in 2009 in Japan 70, and has now independently emerged on three continents.
“This type of fungus is pretty nasty,” says Goodman, “because it’s resistant to many of the drugs that we have available.
“And not only this, which also seems to have a great advantage in changing it in such a way that it can cause disease in man.”
Suggest studies C. ear that some viruses can change very quickly and that rising temperatures in some parts of the world have pushed it to survive in higher temperatures. That can help reduce the ability to infect people.
Now, C. ear It’s a big problem in many hospitals, including those in the US, Goodman says. But it is especially dangerous for people with weakened immune systems. “To many people, it’s probably innocent.”
It changes who is interested.
“Fungal infections definitely keep me up at night,” he says, “because I see all the work that’s being done on bacteria and viruses, and how much we know about all these microorganisms. And then we look at fungal pathogens, and I know so much less.”
And, although none of the fungi have caused a deadly pandemic in humans, they have caused horrific upheavals in wildlife.
“For all intents and purposes, look at bats with white-nose syndrome or frogs and salamanders with chytrid fungus,” he says. “These fungal pathogens are really devastating to these species, which can essentially wipe out entire groups of these animals.”
So it turns out, HBO has more science than I expected. But rest assured, there is no evidence of a fungus out there on the horizon that will infect our brains and control our minds.
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