A zombie apocalypse caused by mind-altering fungi is possible and people should be worried, MPs were warned today.
Deadly new fungal infections capable of colonising human bodies, like in the popular TV show The Last of Us, are emerging faster than ever and evolving quickly to avoid drugs.
But experts say there is not enough research into new treatments because it is not profitable for pharmaceutical companies.
Matthew Fisher, professor of fungal disease at Imperial College London, said the scale of the threat to mankind is not recognised.
‘Fungi impose a huge global burden on public health,’ he told the science, innovation and technology committee. ‘Fungal diseases are up there with the big hitters in terms of global mortality.’
MPs have been warned that new fungal infections capable of colonising human bodies, like in the popular TV show The Last of Us (pictured), are emerging faster than ever and evolving quickly to avoid drugs
A fungus called cordyceps, or zombie-ant fungus, is able to control insects’ minds using psychoactive chemicals. It drains their bodies of nutrients before directing them to a high place and releasing spores to infect others.
Emmy Award-winning The Last of Us, a post-apocalyptic drama based on a hit video game, shows a world in which cordyceps has spread to humans and wiped out most of humanity.
Alarmingly, Professor Fisher said rising global temperatures are causing fungi like cordyceps to evolve and adapt to warmer conditions – which could enable them to colonise human bodies.
Dawn Butler MP asked: ‘Is a zombie apocalypse driven by fungal infections a possibility?’
Professor Fisher said: ‘Well, all the bits exist, don’t they?
‘Fungi can produce strongly psychoactive chemicals, which can influence our behaviour dramatically, and they can also spread and invade humans.
‘I would say it’s unlikely, but fungi are doing a very good job, so it is possible.’
He added: ‘There is a level of public panic around fungi, but this heightened awareness is only a good thing.’
More than 6.5million people suffer from serious fungal diseases and 2.5million are killed by them each year – more than malaria and tuberculosis combined. Prof Fisher said fungal attacks also threaten the global food supply, which could be ‘catastrophic’.
Professor Fisher said new threats are emerging all the time and diseases are evolving rapidly to combat drugs.
Candida auris, a drug-resistant fungal disease that can cause bloodstream infections and death, has spread rapidly across Asia, Europe and the US in the last 10 years.
‘There is an enormous, deep well of fungal organisms, and they can spread through our global trade routes to colonise the planet,’ said Professor Fisher.
‘We’ve seen this with the amphibian-destroying chytrid, which has driven a wrecking ball through tropical ecologies and left forests silent. We’re now seeing the same with humans in terms of the spread of Candida auris.
‘There are at least 20 new antifungal drugs in pre-clinical development; if we could release these, they would greatly boost our antifungal armoury.’
Some fungi can also be used to treat illness.
Statins and penicillin are derived from fungi, while psilocybin, a hallucinogenic substance found in magic mushrooms, may be used to treat anorexia, fibromyalgia, gambling addiction, depression and anxiety.