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Cordyceps /ˈkɔrdəsɛps/ is a genus of ascomycete fungi (sac fungi) that includes about 400 species. All Cordyceps species are endoparasitoids, parasitic mainly on insects and other arthropods (they are thus entomopathogenic fungi); a few are parasitic on other fungi. Until recently, the best known species of the genus was Cordyceps sinensis,[1] first recorded as yartsa gunbu in Nyamnyi Dorje's 15th century Tibetan text An ocean of Aphrodisiacal Qualities. [2] and known as yarsha gumba in Nepali and ""summer-grass, winter-worm" in English. In 2007, nuclear DNA sampling revealed this species to be unrelated to most of the rest of the genus' members; as a result it was renamed Ophiocordyceps sinensis and placed in a new family, the Ophiocordycipitaceae.

The generic name Cordyceps is derived from the Latin words cord, meaning "club", and ceps, meaning "head". Several species of Cordyceps are considered to be medicinal mushrooms in classical Asian pharmacologies, such as that of traditional Chinese[3][4] and Tibetan medicines.

When a Cordyceps fungus attacks a host, the mycelium invades and eventually replaces the host tissue, while the elongated fruit body (ascocarp) may be cylindrical, branched, or of complex shape. The ascocarp bears many small, flask-shaped perithecia containing asci. These, in turn, contain thread-like ascospores, which usually break into fragments and are presumably infective. Some current and former Cordyceps species are able to affect the behaviour of their insect host: Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (formerly Cordyceps unilateralis) causes ants to climb a plant and attach there before they die. This ensures the parasite's environment is at an optimal temperature and humidity, and that maximal distribution of the spores from the fruit body that sprouts out of the dead insect is achieved.[5] Marks have been found on fossilised leaves that suggest this ability to modify the host's behaviour evolved more than 48 million years ago.[6]

The genus has a worldwide distribution and most of the approximately 400 species[7] have been described from Asia (notably Nepal, China, Japan, Bhutan, Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand). Cordyceps species are particularly abundant and diverse in humid temperate and tropical forests.

Some Cordyceps species are sources of biochemicals with interesting biological and pharmacological properties,[8] like cordycepin; the anamorph of C. subsessilis (Tolypocladium inflatum) was the source of ciclosporin—an immunosuppressive drug helpful in human organ transplants, as it inhibits rejection.[9]

Potential pharmacology[edit]

Cordycepin, a compound isolated from the caterpillar fungus

Cordyceps has a long history of use in traditional medicine. One of the earliest clear record is a Tibetan medical text authored by Zurkhar Nyamnyi Dorje in the 15th century outlining the tonic propensities of Yartsa gunbu (Cordyceps sinensis renamed now to Ophiocordyceps sinensis), especially as an aphrodisiac.[2] Although there are often-repeated claims of thousands of years of use in traditional Chinese medicine, so far no clear textual source has surfaced.

Although in vitro and animal models provide preliminary support for some of the traditional medicinal uses, there are no clinical studies demonstrating health benefits in humans or for elderly populations, improved sexual drive and virility and improved renal function.[10] Some polysaccharide components and cordycepin, which have some anticancer activity in preliminary in vitro and animal studies,[11] have been isolated from C. militaris.

Popular culture[edit]

  • The plot of the 2013 action-adventure survival horror video game The Last of Us revolves around society being affected by a mutated strain of the Cordyceps fungi.
  • It serves as the fungus that mutates lost hikers in a season four episode of The Haunting Hour, "Spores".
  • In the ninth episode of season 2 of X-Files entitled Firewalker a cordyceps-like fungi, albeit silicon-based, infects a team of scientists.


The price of Cordyceps sinensis on the Tibetan Plateau rose dramatically by 900% between 1998 and 2008, or an annual average of over 20%. However, the value of large-sized caterpillar fungus has increased more dramatically than smaller size Cordyceps, regarded as lower quality.[12]

Year % Price increasePrice/kg (Yuan)
1997467% (incl. inflation)8,400
2004429% (incl. inflation)36,000



  1. ^ Holliday, John; Cleaver, Matt; (2008). "Medicinal Value of the Caterpillar Fungi Species of the Genus Cordyceps (Fr.) Link (Ascomycetes). A Review" (PDF). International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms (New York: Begell House) 10 (3): 219–234. doi:10.1615/IntJMedMushr.v10.i3.30. ISSN 1521-9437. 
  2. ^ a b Winkler, D. 2008a. Yartsa Gunbu (Cordyceps sinensis) and the Fungal Commodification of the Rural Economy in Tibet AR. Economic Botany 63.2: 291–306
  3. ^ Halpern, Georges M. (2007). Healing Mushrooms. Square One Publishers. pp. 65–86. ISBN 978-0-7570-0196-3. 
  4. ^ Zhu, J.-S.; Halpern, G. M.; Jones, K. (1998). "The Scientific Rediscovery of a Precious Ancient Chinese Herbal Regimen: Cordyceps sinensis: Part II". The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 4 (4): 429–457. doi:10.1089/acm.1998.4.429. ISSN 1075-5535. 
  5. ^ "Neurophilosophy: Brainwashed by a parasite". 2006-11-20. Retrieved 2008-07-02. 
  6. ^ Hughes, D. P.; Wappler, T.; Labandeira, C. C. (2010). "Ancient death-grip leaf scars reveal ant-fungal parasitism". Biology Letters 7 (1): 67–70. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2010.0521. PMC 3030878. PMID 20719770.  edit
  7. ^ Sung, Gi-Ho; Nigel L. Hywel-Jones, Jae-Mo Sung, J. Jennifer Luangsa-ard, Bhushan Shrestha and Joseph W. Spatafora (2007). "Phylogenetic classification of Cordyceps and the clavicipitaceous fungi". Stud Mycol 57 (1): 5–59. doi:10.3114/sim.2007.57.01. PMC 2104736. PMID 18490993. 
  8. ^ Holliday, John; Cleaver, Phillip; Lomis-Powers, Megan; Patel, Dinesh (2004). "Analysis of Quality and Techniques for Hybridization of Medicinal Fungus Cordyceps sinensis (Berk.)Sacc. (Ascomycetes)" (PDF). International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms (New York: Begell House) 6 (2): 152. doi:10.1615/IntJMedMushr.v6.i2.60. ISSN 1521-9437. 
  9. ^ Holliday, John (2005). "Cordyceps". In Coates, Paul M. Encyclopaedia of Dietary Supplements (PDF) 1. Marcel Dekker. pp. 4 of Cordyceps Chapter. 
  10. ^ Cordyceps information from
  11. ^ Khan MA, Tania M, Zhang D, Chen H; Tania; Zhang; Chen (May 2010). "Cordyceps Mushroom: A Potent Anticancer Nutraceutical". The Open Nutraceuticals Journal 3: 179–183. doi:10.2174/1876396001003010179. 
  12. ^ Winkler, Daniel (2008). "Yarsa Gunbu (Cordyceps sinensis) and the Fungal Commodification of the Rural Economy in Nepal". Economic Botany 62 (3): 291–305. doi:10.1007/s12231-008-9038-3. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Bensky, D.; Gamble, A.; Clavey, S.; Stoger, E.; Lai Bensky, L. (2004). Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica (3rd ed.). Seattle: Eastland Press. ISBN 0-939616-42-4. 
  • Kobayasi, Y. (1941). "The genus Cordyceps and its allies". Science Reports of the Tokyo Bunrika Daigaku, Sect. B 5: 53–260. ISSN 0371-3547. 
  • Mains, E. B. (1957). "Species of Cordyceps parasitic on Elaphomyces". Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 84 (4): 243–251. doi:10.2307/2482671. ISSN 0040-9618. JSTOR 2482671. 
  • Mains, E. B. (1958). "North American entomogenous species of Cordyceps". Mycologia 50 (2): 169–222. doi:10.2307/3756193. ISSN 0027-5514. JSTOR 3756193. 
  • Tzean, S. S.; Hsieh, L. S.; Wu, W. J. (1997). Atlas of entomopathogenic fungi from Taiwan. Taiwan: Council of Agriculture, Executive Yuan. 
  • Paterson, R. R. M. (2008). "Cordyceps - a traditional Chinese medicine and another fungal therapeutic biofactory?". Phytochemistry 69 (7): 1469–1495. doi:10.1016/j.phytochem.2008.01.027. PMID 18343466. 


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