Everyday People: David Hughes

From our September/October 2013 issue: Before he founded PlantVillage, Penn State entomologist David Hughes was Hollywood’s go-to guy on the science of the undead.

David Hughes holding up a hand covered in ants, by Cardoni


His research into “zombie ants,” unfortunate insects that fall victim to mind-controlling parasitic fungi, has drawn international attention. Now, movie and video game makers are putting his expertise to use as well.


June saw the debut of two zombie-themed blockbusters on which Hughes, an assistant professor of biology and entomology, consulted: World War Z, starring Brad Pitt in the big-screen adaption of the best-selling novel, and The Last of Us, a post-apocalyptic video game that sold 1.3 million copies in its first week.


For World War Z, Hughes helped the filmmakers understand how a parasitic fungus or virus might evolve, and also confirmed the biological validity of the movie zombies’ “swarming behavior”—how the undead move en masse in search of prey. He cites starlings and wildebeests as examples of animals that exhibit similar (albeit non-lethal) behavior.


The chance to bring science to mainstream, youth-oriented entertainment is motivated by Hughes’ own childhood in Ireland. “Growing up a poor kid in Dublin, I didn’t get to see nature except for once a week: David Attenborough on BBC,” he says. “I like the idea of being able to reach that audience. I think it’s our duty as scientists, and it’s also just fun.”


Hughes hopes the pop-culture appeal of his work brings attention to the all-too-real pandemic threats to humans and our agriculture. He draws parallels between the 19th century Irish potato famine (caused by a fungus-like microorganism) and the threat to cassava in Africa, where the subsistence crop relied on by hundreds of millions of people is at risk of disease. Threats to the food supply may not be the stuff of summer popcorn fare, but as Hughes says, “If you’re dead, you’re dead.”