Cordyceps and CBRN Gear: How to Survive 'The Last of Us'
The world of The Last of Us has introduced a host of people to the world of mycology and, in particular, to the fascinating Cordyceps fungi. We’re all familiar with the mushrooms out in the middle of the woods that eat rotting logs and maybe even living trees, but the thought of mushrooms eating living, breathing things while they’re still alive?
Well, that’s absolutely terrifying.
Nobody wants to turn into a mushroom man even if they did live through the 1970s, and so here you are now, looking for ways to survive a human-eating Cordyceps outbreak. It’s not just about survival skills here but about having the proper CBRN gear on your person at all times.
What CBRN gear would you need to make it through The Last of Us alive? Why would you want that specific gear? Are your chances good?
We’ll tackle all these questions and more below, but first, make sure you play this video in the background as you read this article.
Table of Contents
What You Need to Know About Cordyceps Fungi
Protection Against Inhaling Spores in The Last of Us
Protection Against Ingesting Spores
Frequently Asked Questions
What You Need to Know About Cordyceps Fungi
You don’t have very good chances of surviving what you don’t know. Knowledge is power, and if we’re supposed to keep our friends close and our enemies closer, we need to know a thing or two about how the Cordyceps fungi functions.
Consider this as your 101 introductory course.
(Image courtesy of A Cordyceps-ridden fly. )
Cordyceps is a type of fungus that infects living beings. You probably knew that already, but what you probably didn’t know is that there are currently 400 reported species of the cordyceps fungi that we know about, but it’s estimated that there are many more out there, with each strain having a very specific host.
For example, while Cordyceps sinensis normally attacks caterpillars (and only caterpillars), Cordyceps militaris instead only attacks moths. Each strain is something akin to a pregnant woman who has a hankering for pickles. They want their food and only their food.
The thing about these infections, though, is that they are able to directly influence the behavior of the infected host.
Cordyceps having killed a tarantula. (Image courtesy of Ian Suzuki at Wikimedia Commons.)
Take Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, for example.
This is my personal favorite Cordyceps fungi for the simple reason that it’s so fascinating. This strain only infects ants, and ants being in a highly structured social society akin to human beings, I think there are some interesting things that we can derive from this and apply to The Last of Us.
When this strain of Cordyceps infects an ant, it soon colonizes its host, building a system of fungal tubes around the ant's muscles throughout its entire body. This happens during the incubation period of the infection, a time during which the ant goes about its daily business as if life is normal. This alone is strange as ants have a very strict quarantine policy in place.
Anytime that an ant is sick, it is rapidly kicked out of the colony, much like a leper. However, for reasons we still don’t understand, Cordyceps doesn’t seem to raise any alarms within the colony. It gradually colonizes more and more of its host without causing any signs or symptoms that anybody else can tell until it’s too late.
In The Last of Us, this means that somebody can “turn” in the midst of a room full of their friends and family without anybody being any the wiser that they’ve been infected throughout this entire time. It takes time for the fungus to colonize its host, and this makes for a particularly nefarious parasitic infection here.
But if we return to the ant kingdom once more, we find that once this infection has reached a critical threshold, the behavior of the ant changes. The ant “turns,” in other words. The Cordyceps causes the ant to climb an area of a tree that is roughly 10” off the ground, clamp onto a leaf with its jaw, and die. A mushroom then pops out of the back of that little ant’s head, and spores are then dispersed over the colony.
(Image courtesy of Bernard Dupont at Wikimedia Commons.)
The interesting thing here is that the scaffolding network that the Cordyceps builds around the ant’s muscles doesn’t seem to actively penetrate the nervous system but instead controls the ant’s movements for it. This means that the ant is likely fully cognizant that he is doing things that he doesn’t want to do. He may want to go and eat dinner, but the fungus moves his muscles for him, causing him to climb a tree and do what he can to infect his friends and family.
The same type of thing is suggested to happen throughout The Last of Us. We regularly find runners and stalkers throughout the video game and show who give evidence that they are completely knowledgeable about what it is that they are doing. Talking, weeping – these are just some of the signs that they sometimes give us.
Think about how terrifying this is.
These infected may know that they are attacking their friends and family. They just can’t do anything about it. The Cordyceps is controlling everything they do much like a puppet master. It is the mushroom that is in control of their body and not themselves any longer. They are simply a spectator.
Cordyceps Ioeiensis. (Image courtesy of Steve Axford at Wikimedia Commons.)
The world of fungi is filled with mystery for this reason. Oftentimes we find that fungi almost seem to make decisions, and we see the same thing with Cordyceps. It’s not sentient, but it gives the impression that it is for reasons that we still don’t fully understand.
How is it that specific strains of Cordyceps are able to “recognize” their hosts when studied in the lab and actually respond accordingly? How does it manage to measure altitude and control the eyes so that it can seek out something that will take it to altitude, and then determine, “Oh look. A leaf. I’ve been looking for one of those to serve as an anchor point so that I can now spread my spores over as many of the ants below as possible.” How does it do that? How does it know to delay the killing of its host until optimal spore-dispersal conditions are found?
And what about the concept that what we often think about individual mushrooms in a field all being individuals when in fact, they are all parts of one superorganism? The largest mushroom that we know about is approximately 37 acres.
Acres. You read that right.
Mycelium, aka mushroom roots. That 37 acre mushroom meant 37 acre’s worth of mushroom roots throughout the area for a single organism (Image courtesy of Rob Hille at Wikimedia Commons.)
These are fields full of mushrooms that are all connected to one organism for the reason that they are one organism. They’re not all offspring of some “parent” mushroom. They’re the same fungus.
Does the same principle apply to The Last of Us? Is every single person that’s infected with Cordyceps part of one single organism spread out throughout the world? Obviously, continents would separate organisms from one another, but is it possible that this is one organism that is controlling everybody? Perhaps it may be separated from itself by geography, but it is still itself. This would add something of the taste of a supervillain taking over the world. A supervillain so small that there’s nothing that we can do to stop it, despite our having superior technology, much akin to the bacteria in War of the Worlds.
Only this time we are the aliens. This time, we are the ones who lose.
Protection Against Inhaling Spores in The Last of Us
Within the video game and HBO series, The Last of Us, there are three main routes of infection: breathing spores, eating contaminated foods (particularly with flour), and being bitten by an infected individual. In the original video game's, inhalation was the most likely route that infected the world as well as the most accurate portrayal of this particular fungus. As such, this will be the arena we want to enter first.
You have to have a gas mask if you want to survive The Last of Us. There is no way around it. Elle and Who-Should-Have-Been Hugh Jackman repeatedly walk through areas where there are large amounts of spores that are floating around in the air. The only way to survive this is with a high-quality gas mask.
Survivors throughout the game regularly wear full-face gas masks, and this is what you would need as well. Anytime we’re talking about an infectious agent, we need to protect all mucosal membranes – including the eyes. The world of The Last of Us would call for something such as the MIRA Safety CM-6M.
(Image courtesy of Blue Line Syndicate Group)
This full-face gas mask tightly seals to the face and is commonly used by military and governmental CBRN units throughout the world for the most dangerous of chemical and biological agents. A global mushroom pandemic would most certainly qualify.
It’s not just having the appropriate gas mask, however. You would also have to have the appropriate type of filter. If we’re looking across the board of the mushroom kingdom, spores have an average size of 2-4 micrometers, with some species even dropping down to the 0.3-micrometer level.
Thankfully, MIRA Safety has gas mask filters that can stop that. Our NBC-77 filter is our “stop it all” filter, so it could most certainly protect your lungs from Cordyceps spores. However, our ParticleMax P3 Virus Filters could do the same and would prove to be a very economical means of getting your whole family squared away to survive The Last of Us. (We do offer children’s gas masks as well, which will help to keep them protected)
(Image courtesy of Blue Line Syndicate Group)
One of the best upgrades we would recommend to make for your gas masks is the addition of a Powered Air Purifying Respirator or PAPR. You never know for how long you’re going to have to wear that gas mask and if you’re going to have to spend a good deal of time running away from a mushroom-infected runner or a stalker. You would already have respiratory protection from your gas mask and appropriate filter, but you could make the breathing process for long periods of time much easier and more comfortable through the use of a PAPR system.
Our MB-90 Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) was engineered based on a design that the Israeli Defense Forces use. It will help to provide a constant source of clean, ready-to-breathe air right inside your gas mask at all times so you don’t have to worry about physically sucking that clean air through your filter. This results in less work having to be performed by the respiratory muscles, meaning you can instead focus on using that energy to run away from mushroom people.
(Image courtesy of The MIRA Safety PAPR)
One of the real-life problems that survivors of The Last of Us would have would be the presence of spores in their clothing. Even if they did walk through a spore-contaminated area with a gas mask, if they still wore their normal clothes (as they do in the video game) and continued about their regular life afterward without changing them, there is a very good chance that they could be infected by spores that had nestled in the fabric of their clothing only to be “poofed” out into their face later when they sat in a chair, moved their arms over their heads, etc.
Mushroom hunters commonly carry their foraged finds in wicker baskets with this express purpose in mind – spreading spores throughout the forest. Spores can easily find their way into clothing and, in the case of some fungi, even colonize them.
This being the case, it would be absolutely essential that one wore proper hazmat suits anytime that one feared they would be moving through a heavy spore area.
There’s the obvious difficulty here of never being able to accurately predict when one would be exposed to spores in the first place – you never know when a stalker is going to discover where you’re at – but in the instances where you knew you needed to search X hospital for X supplies, you would want to properly suit up.
And there would be no better way to suit up than with a MOPP-1 CBRN Protective Suit. There are a number of reasons that this type of hazmat suit would be ideal for a The Last of Us setting. For starters, it’ll protect your clothing (and hence, you), as previously discussed. We can’t neglect the fact that it’s camouflage, either. This means you’ll be much better hidden from violent survivors as well as infected runners and stalkers as you maneuver throughout the environment. Clickers and bloaters can’t see anyways – instead using echolocation to find their prey – so you wouldn’t really have to worry about them visibly seeing you, but for everything else, camouflage would be essential.
(Image courtesy of The MIRA Safety MOPP-1 CBRN Protective Suit)
Lastly, the MOPP-1 CBRN Protective Suit would keep you well-ventilated while you were protected. You may be in the northern part of Texas when Cryptosporidium-laced bread starts making everybody go crazy. You don’t know. What you do know is that you want to be able to wear your hazmat gear for longer than 30 minutes without suffering the debilitating effects of a heat stroke.
Keep Your Feet Protected
Just as a hazmat suit helps to protect your clothes, you also want to make sure that you’re protecting your shoes from bringing spores with you everywhere that you go. Take a look around you at peoples’ feet the next time that you go to the store, and you’ll notice that the main thing that people tend to wear is tennis shoes.
These are commonly made of a porous, breathable fabric. That’s great for active movement as well as for a nice little nest for spores to make a temporary home out of. If you end up wearing those same shoes through a spore-contaminated environment and then wearing them back in your house, you could easily cause those spores to find their way into your living area. You need foot protection to move through a heavy spore area to prevent this from happening.
This is where we recommend the MIRA Safety Combat Overboot. You can quickly slip these over whatever pair of boots you’re already wearing, and they’ll help to protect you against the CBRN agents that even the military is afraid of.
Protect Your Gear
The Hugh Jackman imposter can commonly be found throughout the video game and show wearing an old backpack in which he magically holds large amounts of gear in a manner similar to Mary Poppins’ purse. Shotgun? Baseball bat? Bandages? Stuff it all in there. It’ll fit.
If you find yourself in possession of such a mystical backpack, you’re going to want to take as good care of it as possible. Let’s say that you walk through an apartment building in search of shelter and end up going through a spore cloud.
Well, now your magical backpack is laced with spores that will cause your bearded noggin to sprout a mushroom, and nobody wants that. You want to hang onto that particular piece of gear, but in order to do so safely, you need to make sure that it is as protected as possible.
This is where the M4 CBRN Military Poncho comes into play. Specifically designed to protect soldiers’ rucksacks (and persons) from CBRN agents while out on the battlefield, this poncho can be quickly slipped on over one’s head and worn even while wearing a backpack. Your gear would be protected from both spores and rain, and you have the added benefit of being camouflaged in the process. The M4 CBRN Military Poncho was originally designed for the Serbian military forces, meaning it comes with the M-MDU-10 camo pattern.
(Image courtesy of The MIRA Safety M4 CBRN Military Poncho)
This camo pattern is very close to the US Army’s Universal Camouflage Pattern when dyed green, and you can get a taste of its effectiveness in the video below:
Even if you’re not in an area where you need to quickly don a gas mask, this piece of gear could easily save your life by giving you quick access to camouflage. As any Lonely Planet travel guide will tell you, sometimes wearing camo patterns in various areas only causes you to stand out even more. In The South, you can pretty much get away with wearing camo anywhere you go. If you’re walking around Washington DC, Somalia, or Northern Ireland on the other hand wearing camo, well, that may not be as good of an idea.
In the world of The Last of Us, you may want to keep the same mindset in mind. You may be wearing normal street clothes but then need to quickly disappear into the woods to escape an incoming band of hostile survivors. A camouflaged poncho would be a great means of doing just that.
Additionally, you won’t always be able to guarantee that you’ll have shelter in The Last of Us. Maybe the neighborhood you’ve been sheltering in the past few weeks gets overtaken by a motorcycle gang. Maybe a bloater moves into town. Maybe it’s just a lack of resources that forces you to move on.
Whatever the case may be, it’s entirely possible that you would have to spend a great deal of time navigating through wilderness environments in your search for a better location. Ask anybody that has been caught in the woods in a thunderstorm without shelter, and they’ll verify that having some means of hunkering down is absolutely essential to survival.
Sure, you could build an ad hoc survival shelter – and some of these do work great – but you’ll get soaked in the process if it’s already raining. Military ponchos are commonly used as tarps to create simple trail shelters, and you can do the very same with the M4 CBRN Military Poncho. This would give you the means to get both yourself and perhaps loved ones that are with you out of the rain as you survive yet another night out in the woods.
It's a great tool to keep with you at all times, and whether you’re talking with desert survival guru Tony Nestor or reading the late great Mors Kochanski’s Bushcraft, they all agree that keeping some type of waterproof material with you – such as a poncho – as you navigate through the wilderness is absolutely essential.
Why not make it a piece of gear that will also protect you from spores?
Protection Against Ingesting Spores in 'The Last of Us'
One of the chief means by which the human Cordyceps fungi spreads in The Last of Us is through contaminated food. There are several scenes throughout the Last of Us show which demonstrate that it is contaminated bread that is causing the fungus to spread throughout the world.
There are a couple of ways that you would be able to avoid this fate.
It’s clear, from the The Last of Us show, that the Cordyceps spores are heat resistant. That’s well within the nature of a fungal spore. Many of them are fully capable of surviving the heat involved with the process of pasteurization and it’s entirely possible for one to get sick from eating fungal spore-contaminated bread even after it’s been in the oven for over an hour.
This is one of the things that makes ergotism such an obnoxious disease. Caused by heat-resistant fungal spores in flour, this disease is known for causing hallucinations and if large amounts of people all end up eating the same contaminated bread, you can easily end up in a situation where you have a crowd that’s literally insane. There’s even some speculation that the start of The Salem Witch Trials (which weren’t anywhere near as bad as the European witch trials, by the way) was caused by ergotism.
(Image courtesy of The cause of ergotism. )
The point is that eating live spores – even in baked or cooked foods – is entirely possible.
You still have to eat, though.
So that’s where the dilemma is. We have to eat, but what do we eat? How do we eat without becoming eaten?
Atkins dieters have the last laugh?
Some have pointed out that Atkins dieters would likely be some of the only people on the planet who wouldn’t be initially infected since they “don’t eat bread.” This isn’t entirely true, however. Atkins dieters commonly eat Atkins processed food products, and though these may be low in flour, it won’t necessarily be absent.
Instead, who you would most likely see being uninfected in the initial stages of the Cordyceps pandemic would be Crossfitters. These people regularly “go paleo,” meaning they don’t eat any processed food or bread products whatsoever. This would make for a much safer diet, mushroom monster-wise.
One of the problems, though, is that spores are everywhere. We never learn in the video game just exactly how many spores one has to ingest in order to become sick, but if a single cookie or slice of birthday cake is all that it takes to go from human being to mushroom-tongued weirdo, the threshold is obviously fairly low.
There’s even the chance that airborne spores could land on non-bread foods such as apples, that plate of steak you’re about to eat, or so on. The spores wouldn’t be able to colonize those foods, but there’s nothing saying that an apple you carry in your hand through a spore-filled hallway wouldn’t end up with spores on it.
This is where you may want something like a MIRA Safety DTX-1 Detoxifier with you. By putting all the food you eat into a bin of water and then utilizing the DTX-1 Detoxifier, you would blast that food with ultrasonic waves and ozone that would have the potential to kill off all those Cordyceps spores if the DTX-1 Detoxifier was used at full power for the longest time frame mentioned within the user’s manual.
(Image courtesy of The MIRA Safety DTX-1 Detoxifier)
Outside of eating MREs, canned food, and pre-packaged stuff that didn’t have any flour products in it (e.g., fruit and nut bars) all the time, the DTX-1 Detoxifier would really be the only way to be as sure as possible that the food you ate didn’t have spores on it.
A NOTE OF INTEREST
While if we’re talking about The Last of Us, taking Cordyceps fungi sounds like an outright foolish decision to make, in the real world, people regularly take this supplement for a number of reasons. It’s been studied for the ways it can improve athletic performance, shows antioxidant activities, has anti-aging properties, and seems to be beneficial for patients who are struggling with diabetes.
The desire for Cordyceps as a nutritional supplement has skyrocketed so high in recent years that the Tibetan Plateau, where C. sinenisis is often found, is not only running out of the fungi, but the price of it has increased by 900% between 1998-2008.
To assist in putting product out on the market, some of these Chinese retailers have turned to adding lead to their Cordyceps products so that they can meet the weight requirements of what they advertise. There were actually a few cases of lead poisoning throughout the 1990s that were caused by this practice.
If you’re going to take any supplement, you probably want to make sure it has the ‘USP’ label on it (not just the letters ‘USP,’ but actually the official USP label. This author has spotted forgeries just putting the letters USP on bottles in an attempt to trick people).
The world of The Last of Us is absolutely brutal. But with the right CBRN gear, it is a survivable event. Hopefully, we’ve helped to steer you in the correct direction so that you would know what you would need to do in the event of a man-eating Cordyceps spillover event across the planet.
But what are your thoughts on all this? Are there other CBRN precautions that you would recommend? Let us know what you would recommend in the comment section below.
Frequently Asked Questions
If we’re asking this question in the sense of wondering if it can infect humans, the answer is currently no. If we’re asking this in regards to taking it as a supplement, one should always remember that just about anything can be harmful to you if you ingest too much of it. As Hippocrates said, “Everything in excess is opposed to nature.” At least in the case of ingesting too much Cordyceps, this is true.
In humans, Cordyceps is commonly taken as an aphrodisiac, an exercise improver, to fight inflammation, and for its anti-aging properties.
Perhaps. Some studies have found that Cordyceps does have an effect on gut flora. Remember that this isn’t an FDA-approved substance, however, and that nutritional supplements can legally contain all kinds of strange things inside of them.
This depends on your definition of a superfood. Are there potentially a large number of health benefits to taking Cordyceps supplements? Sure. Are there also potential risks that could be involved with taking Cordyceps? Again, sure.
How would it influence the medication you already take? Are there long-term consequences that we don’t know about? Are you sure that you’re actually eating Cordyceps and not just fillers? You really need to do a lot of research before taking any nutritional supplement, and it’s always wise to discuss your intentions with your doctor or pharmacist before adding any type of supplement to your diet as well.
Could we see Cordyceps spillover from the animal kingdom to infect humans? There’s no reason to suspect that this is impossible. We see zoonoses take place all the time. We also have to take into account that it’s entirely possible that somebody could actively engineer a strain of Cordyceps that would infect humans.
In the video game, Joel is approximately 25-30 something years old when the outbreak first starts. When Ellie comes along, Joel is 20 years older, meaning he would be around 50 throughout much of the video game. Within the TV show, Joel is 56 when the main events of The Last of Us unfold.
Bella Ramsey plays Ellie in the TV show. She has a long and varied history in film, TV, and video games, but aside from Game of Thrones, she is largely unheard of. A lot of people were upset that it wasn’t Kaitlyn Dever, the youngest daughter from Last Man Standing.
The video game takes about 15 hours to beat. The TV show episodes average somewhere around an hour.
Ashley Johnson voices Ellie in the video game. She’s a fairly popular voice actor who has worked on various LEGO video games, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episodes, and various other cartoons.
The video game was released in 2013 for PlayStation.