The most original (and scientifically plausible) zombies of the yearS

We're all feeling a little let down by the World War Z movie, but that doesn't mean the zombie trope has expired. In fact, this year witnessed the emergence of an utterly original kind of zombie — and it's even scientifically plausible. I'm speaking, of course, about the "infected" from the game The Last of Us.

Instead of looking to zombie movies for inspiration, the creators of The Last of Us looked to nature. What kind of infection in the natural world could possibly cause the symptoms of zombification we've come to know and love in everything from George Romero's movies to The Walking Dead? In fact, there is such an infection — the so-called "zombie fungus" infections that take control of insects' behavior and eventually result in fungal "fruiting bodies" erupting from the poor creatures' faces and bodies.

Over at Scientific American, Kyle Hill sums up the grisly scientific backstory of the game:

Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (previsouly Cordyceps unilateralis), has captured public interest almost as much as zombies have. The fungus famously uses a specific species of ant to complete its life cycle. To live, it must zombify an ant. The consuming fungus forces an ant of the species Camponotus leonardi to get a “death grip” on the underside of a leaf—a position prime for the fungus’ transmission. The poor infected insect—once adorned with a harmless looking spore—then has its tissue slowly eaten and replaced. All that remains of the ant at this point is the exoskeleton, a husk. A deceased ant if there ever was one, save for the spiraling fruiting bodies of the fungus now protruding from the ant’s head and body. These bodies burst forth from the ant, eventually releasing spores ready to begin the cycle anew . . .

In The Last of Us, Cordyceps adds humans to the list of hosts. The apocalypse starts when the fungus makes a jump from their typical hosts to humans in presumably the same way some diseases like “swine flu” can jump between species. The new, unidentified species of Cordyceps turns humans first into violent “infected” and then into blind “clickers,” complete with fruiting bodies sprouting from their faces. Like traditional zombie canon, a zombie bite is death. However, the inhalation of Cordyceps spores is the un-death sentence.

Given that zombie stories often express our fears about pandemics and mind control, Cordyceps is a perfect (and eerily plausible) vector for zombie terror. If the zombie genre has a future, it may lie in games.

Read more at Scientific American.