Mind and Body

Scientific breakthrough may push an aphrodisiac mushroom into the mainstream

The fungus can be found protruding from the corpse of a dead caterpillar.

An illustration of a fungus protruding from the corpse of a dead caterpillar
hjochen / Shutterstock / oxygen / Getty Images

For centuries, a fungus that found protruding from the corpse of a dead caterpillar was considered one of nature’s most powerful aphrodisiacs. And thanks to a breakthrough announced in March 2019, this rare medicinal treasure may go into mass production — with consequences that could reshape libidos and economies around the world.

This year, scientists published a paper that serves as a how-to guide for industrial production of the fungus. The work builds on an earlier 2014 study describing the first successful cultivation of the fungus in the lab. Together, the research could push the fungus into the mainstream, changing the culture of how it has been collected for decades.

This is #11 on Inverse’s list of the 25 Most WTF science stories of 2019.

Traditionally, Ophiocordyceps sinensis (C. sinensis) is found above the tree line in the Tibetan Himalayas, sticking out of the corpses of the Ghost moth larvae. It belongs to the same cordyceps genus of mushrooms responsible for Planet Earth’s famous zombie ants, but C. sinensis has a less grisly reputation.

As early as the 15th century, Tibetan physician Nyamnyi Dorje claimed that C. sinensis “increased semen” and is “a faultless treasure of an ocean of good qualities,” earning it the monicker “Himalayan Viagra”.

Caterpillar fungus is extremely rare, and can only be found high in the Himalayas. But recent breakthroughs may put it into mass production. 


That potential spawned an ecosystem of cordyceps-based products, sources told Inverse in August 2019. But these products are composed of related strains grown in the West, and aren’t found on caterpillars — supposedly lessening their powers, experts said.

But if the scientists’ work stands, lab-based production could tank a whole way of life as the mushroom goes mainstream.

The online market has benefitted from the mystique of C.sinensis, but the Himalayas are still the only place to get real caterpillar fungus, mushroom expert David Winkler told Inverse. Chinese buyers will pay as much as $35,000 for a single pound, he estimated.His research shows that collecting it and selling it to buyers in China has become a mainstay of the local economy.

“You have a community up there that lived at subsistence, feeding themselves and bartering. Then comes caterpillar fungus and all of the sudden everyone can make cash,” Winkler said. “One or two years of collection and you can buy a motorcycle and you can buy a cell phone.”

That could have a negative impact on the people who depend on the trade for their livelihoods. “Nobody talks about economic sustainability for these rural areas and that’s kind of heartbreaking actually,” Winkler said.

As 2019 draws to a close, Inverse is counting down the 25 science stories from this year that made us say “WTF.” Some are incredible, some are icky, and some are just plain strange. This has been #11. Read the original article here.

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