The World’s Most Expensive Fungus

Believe it or not, one of the world’s most
coveted status symbols is a caterpillar with a fungus growing out of its face. I’m Anna, and this is Gross Science. On the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas,
ghost moth caterpillars live underground, keeping warm and eating plant roots til they
turn into adult ghost moths. That is, unless they get infected with the
fungus Ophiocordyceps sinensis. The fungus enters a caterpillar’s body in summer or
autumn, and it starts to grow in threads through the caterpillar’s organs, eating it from
the inside out. Brainwashed by the fungus, the caterpillar crawls upward until it’s
just below the surface of the soil, where it dies. In the spring, a long, brown fungal stalk
bursts from the caterpillar’s head. It pops through the soil to send out its spores, which
infect other caterpillars—and the circle of life and parasitism continue. Now, you might think that’s the end of the
story, but people scour the meadows where the fungus grows, hoping to harvest these
infected corpses. Why? Well, a pound of the fungus, called yartsa gunbu, can be worth
tens of thousands of dollars. In fact, it’s probably the most valuable fungus in the world.
That’s because it’s used in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine to slow aging,
cure cancer, and treat all kinds of other diseases. It’s even sold as an aphrodisiac. The science is still out on whether eating
yartsa gunbu actually does anything good for your health. But, harvesting it is definitely
bad for the fungus. It’s a huge status symbol in China, and people have collected so much
Ophiocordyceps sinensis that it’s now endangered in some places. And, this isn’t just a problem for the parasite,
or for the people who eat it or brew it in tea. Yartsa gunbu is a big part of the economy
in places where it’s harvested, like Tibet and Nepal. So, local communities are trying
to figure out ways to sustainably harvest the fungus. Because for them, this is one
parasite that’s worth protecting. I still feel kind of bad for the caterpillar
though. Ew.

Comments 100

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *