The Blog

An Interview With Dr. David Hughes, The Zombie Ant Expert Behind PS3 Phenomenon 'The Last of Us'

The main area of David's work is the Cordyceps fungi, or the 'zombie ant' fungi. Cordyceps works by effectively taking over the ant's systems, before killing the insect and bursting out of its skull, often high above an ant nest, so that infecting those below becomes that much easier.

If you don't know about The Last of Us by now, where have you been? The new, PS3 only, offering from Naughty Dog games takes on that most familiar of scenarios- the apocalypse- and turns it on its head. It's a fantastic game, and I urge you to check it out now, even if you're not typically interested in dystopias or shows like The Walking Dead and Jericho.

Of course, The Last of Us could not have been this good without the team behind it putting in the research hours. To help them with this, they roped in Dr. David Hughes, an expert in Entomology & Biology from the CIDD (Centre for Infectious Disease Dynamics). The main area of David's work is the Cordyceps fungi, or the 'zombie ant' fungi. Cordyceps works by effectively taking over the ant's systems, before killing the insect and bursting out of its skull, often high above an ant nest, so that infecting those below becomes that much easier. It's the closest thing we have to a zombie virus/Alien Chestburster life form. Clearly then, Dr Hughes is the man to have in your corner at the end of the world, and it just so happens I was lucky enough to speak to him about what we can all do to prepare for the end of days.

Hi David. Historically, there have been a few mass outbreaks of diseases that have caused real threats to the human race. Are we more prepared for such an outbreak today, or have we become a bit 'soft' with our easy access to medicine etc?

We are soft as you say. In the same way greater protection in SUV's leads to more crashes. That is one part. The other is that we are not engaged with nature so don't see the issues. And we forget the terror of diseases because we don't know people who have died of TB or disabled by polio.

Does it ever get you down, thinking about all of these unstoppable diseases?

There are not unstoppable. Humans are ingenious and not for nothing called the intelligent ape. I would like to think we can find great solutions. What truly depresses me is how we ignore the threats to our food supply.

As an Irishman, I am keenly aware of how disease of our crops can destroy populations. In the arena of human diseases we are doing a great job with surveillance and preparedness- but for diseases of our crops and animals we are not. And that is terrifying to me. I look at Ireland in 1845 as similar to sub-Saharan Africa today with a huge population dependent on a vulnerable crop. As a society we have stopped training experts in plant diseases. That is a disaster and so, to counter that, I am developing a social network for plant growers that can crowdsource solutions by linking the world's famers together ( sounds like an extremely innovative way to educate farmers about disease. Do you see this as something which could prevent the next big outbreak?

I see it as a way to leverage the billions of farmers to be sentinels recording in real time disease of crops and animals and tracking it and stopping it before it gets going. Each farmer has a phone with more computing power the Apollo missions. That is powerful. Nothing else is being done to effectively track diseases as well as allow farmers to crowdsource solutions.

You're known as the 'Zombie Ant Guy' on Twitter, which is a reference to the Cordyceps fungi, which lives inside the bodies of insects and is perhaps the closest thing we have to a 'zombie virus'. What are the chances of this going inter-species and infecting humans?

We already eat this fungus medically since it has certain properties we like. It is very expensive because of this. These fungi have been known to jump between Kingdoms of life (so from fungi to insects to plants). Jumping is not the problem- opportunity is. So, long as we don't start eating ants from forests we are fine. But we eat chimps from forests (and other bush meat) and so get their diseases (AIDS).

Will increasing levels of deforestation benefit the human population by limiting the number of viruses, fungi etc we come into contact with, or are we just as at risk from viruses found in urban populations?

Viruses can and do come from forests: those in us (such as AIDS) and our food (like diseases of Cocoa, the chocolate diseases). The problem is not diseases coming from forests, but how we eat. Bushmeat being an example. As populations increase we need more meat, and so we enter forests. Cutting down all the forests would solve that problem, but entail other costs.

But the greatest issue is high density farming (pigs, chickens) which are evolutionary cradles for nasty diseases like swine flu and bird flu.

It used to be that dystopian fiction focused on atomic bombs as the cause of the apocalypse. Do you think some sort of end-game scenario, brought about by diseases is now more likely?

Yes, definitely.

Why is that? The risk of nuclear devices is (supposedly) under control, but at the same time, medicinal sciences are surely advancing every day?

Because of vested interests. More focus is on diseases of the rich would lead to greater profits (heart disease) or non-diseases such as Viagra or male baldness. We spend more money controlling male baldness than controlling malaria. Frankly put, poor people in Africa are not that important. Very great work is being done by some such as Gates and WHO, but largely medicine is by companies and companies want profits and Africans don't promise that.

Meanwhile, populations are huge and cities growing so major potential exists, as happened in Europe (middle Ages) and global (1918 pandemic).

That is terrifying. What do you think of the apocalypse genre as a whole? Have you seen shows like The Walking Dead, or Threads?

Yes. I also consulted for WWZ.

How did consulting for a large scale blockbuster such as WWZ compare to consulting for a game?

I was involved with the script for the movie, but for the game just came on at the end to discuss pandemics and diseases generally.

What other problems can we expect to face after an apocalyptic event?

The main problem would be mass chaos as services and infrastructure break down.

I interviewed Max Brooks recently, and he said the best way to be prepared for a zombie attack was to always carry a natural disaster pack, such as an earthquake kit. How long after a disaster has occurred, could we expect people to start developing sicknesses?

There won't be a zombie attack as Hollywood imagines it. We could have mass mortality and disease arising rapidly but the whole chasing around, manically biting won't happen. Not to say virus don't cause biting (rabies) but it just won't happen, given the way parasites jump and the effects they have in they new hosts.

That said, new disease can kill immediately and the virulent disease (Ebola, 1918 flu, Marburg) kill in days, sometimes hours.

If you found yourself a survivor in the world of The Last of Us, how long do you think you would last?

No-one can answer that question. No-body knows what they would do in apocalyptic situations as many histories ranging from the Black Death to Nazi camps attest. Fingers cross it doesn't get there.