Ophiocordyceps sinensis, or caterpillar fungus, is a parasitic fungus that infects caterpillars of ghost moths. Permissive hosts include 57 species of ghost moths, most of which are in the genus Thitarodes (1). It is found in Asia, only on the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding areas at altitudes of over 3000 m (1).
In late summer, caterpillars that come into contact with fungal spores become infected, releasing the fungal mycelium (2). The fungus directs the caterpillars to move from the roots they feed on to a spot closer to the surface but still underground while the fungus grows within its new host (3). Eventually the fungus kills the caterpillar, which becomes rigid (2). After winter has passed, the fungus bursts through the caterpillar’s body to form its fruiting body that extends up above the soil (2). The fruiting body releases spores to infect new hosts (2).
The caterpillar-fungus complex has been used in Chinese and Tibetan medicine for centuries (1). Bioactivities reported for the complex include anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, immunomodulatory, and antitumor activities (1). As such, and because of its rarity, it has reached prices as high as USD 13,000 per kg, causing it to be called “soft gold” in China (1).
Parasite Comics Team:
Dr. Chenhua Li (Lead, Ideas), Dr. Þórey Jónsdóttir (Illustrator, Ideas), Stephen Pollo (Writer, Researcher), Yuanzhe Wang (Digital Consultant).