Once a foraging ant eats an Ophiocordyceps spore, it only has days to live. That’s how long it takes to develop inside the creature’s body and send burrowing mycelia, a network of fine fungal filaments, into the insect’s organs. The ant, as if possessed, climbs about 10 inches up the nearest plant and dies, allowing the mushroom that blooms from its corpse to rain down more spores on unsuspecting hosts.
This so-called zombie fungus, found worldwide, is a well-known nightmare — it even made it onto an episode of the BBC’s Planet Earth. So it has unsurprisingly populated human fantasies as well: Smash hit video game The Last of Us, which premiered in 2013, featured the same fungus, but it mutated to infect humans, turning most of humanity into an echolocating undead army.
In real life, though, the masses might take Ophiocordyceps sinensis (formerly known as Cordyceps sinensis) willingly and eagerly. In fact, according to research published last year in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology:
Ophiocordyceps sinensis mushrooms are the most expensive in the world, commanding $ 140,000 per pound for high-quality specimens.
Even third-class or comparatively low-quality O. sinensis brought in more than $ 45,300 per pound, according to the same research. That’s an increase of about $ 24,000 per pound for top-quality O. sinensis since 2008, a 483 percent increase. By comparison, prized high-quality white truffles sell for $ 2,000 to $ 4,000 per pound.
Long before Ophiocordyceps inspired morbidly beautiful time-lapse footage or annihilated humanity on screen, it was intertwined with the origins of Chinese medical culture. Legend has it that the Yellow Emperor, a Chinese deity and hero who’s credited in myth with inventing math, the calendar and clothing before dying in 2598 B.C. at the age of 113, is the author of the Huangdi Neijing, a foundational text of Chinese medicine. The Yellow Emperor allegedly held Ophiocordyceps in the highest esteem, says John Young, a Cordyceps researcher with Chang Gung University, though the first written accounts of the fungus being used date back to Tang Dynasty herbal texts from 620 A.D.
Traditionally, Ophiocordyceps sinensis is the species used in Chinese medicine. This version, rather than targeting tropical ants or video game characters, infects caterpillars nested beneath mountainous ground, only growing in cold temperatures — something so uncharacteristic for a fungus that Young says he “fell out of [his] chair when I found this out.” Proponents of the fungus in traditional Chinese medicine use it to “tonify the lung, replenish the kidneys, arrest bleeding, dissolve phlegm, treat chronic coughs, treat spontaneous sweating and restore strength after an illness,” according to research published by Cardiff University last year. It was also traditionally used to goose the libido, earning it the moniker “Himalayan Viagra.”
The fungus was an emperor’s food, says Young, and its value has driven thousands of people annually for hundreds of years to scour the Tibetan plateau for the tiny, orangish-brown mushrooms that thrust up through the frigid earth. But those very foragers, driven by the increasing price of Ophiocordyceps, are likely overharvesting them — a fact that, along with climate change, is expected to negatively impact the supply of the fungus.
Nevertheless, the rising price of Ophiocordyceps has driven more and more companies to cultivate it over the last four decades — and recent breakthroughs in the understanding of Ophiocordyceps’ basic biology have allowed industrial cultivation in China to increase exponentially: Yield in 2014 was just 2.5 tons, but that doubled in 2015 and again in 2016. Food products incorporating Cordyceps saw sales rise 230 percent in 2018.
Whether the science justifies the mushroom’s cost is less clear. Decades ago, some scientists thought they’d found the secret to several of O. sinensis’ health effects: a compound called cordycepin. As it turned out, cordycepin was only produced in significant quantities by a different Ophiocordyceps species: O. militaris. But the two are often sold interchangeably — despite having different active ingredients and, potentially, effects.
Moreover, Young explains that Ophiocordyceps excels at picking up environmental compounds — including, in shoddier operations, heavy metals and even arsenic. And while cultivation has come far, it’s hard to know how much of what you’re getting is the mushroom, how much the mycelium — which has different compounds — and how much is just leftover insect components. While there’s never been an observed risk of consuming too much Cordyceps, this makes dosing difficult. “I want to at least say, ‘100 grams of Cordyceps is 100 grams of Cordyceps,’” says Young, “Not ‘5 grams, and the rest is something I don’t know.’”
Research has turned up a host of potential benefits to Ophiocordyceps, including anticancerous properties. However, only a few, such as anti-inflammatory properties and exercise-recovery enhancement, have been validated in human studies. Of those, some studies have mixed results on how effective Cordyceps is as a performance enhancer — and trials certainly haven’t equaled the results claimed by the two female track and field athletes who won China multiple gold medals at 1993’s Stuttgart World Championships in Athletics, who attributed much of their success to Ophiocordyceps. The mushroom has been shown to aid in kidney transplant recovery and kidney disease — but as an aid, not a primary treatment.
For now, the world’s priciest fungus straddles the divide between health food and nutraceutical. Isolating more active compounds and conducting more human tests would push it from one into the other. “With stronger, human evidence that it works,” says Yale nutritionist expert David Katz, “it stops being alternative medicine.” So, with more research, Cordyceps may soon be not only in the health food store near you but the pharmacy too.