Fungal parasite of caterpillars is source of "Himalayan viagra"

Photo by Nicolas Merky

Wow – never heard of this fungus before reading this CNN piece: ‘Himalayan Viagra’ taking its toll on Nepal – CNN.com. The fungus infects caterpillars (larva of a ghost moth) in the Himalayas and kills them. And the fungal coated dead caterpillars are, alas, considered to have multiple uses in various traditional Chinese medicine practices. One of the uses is as an aphrodisiac and thus these have become known as “Himalayan viagra”.

The fungus that does this is Ophiocordyceps sinensis – (it is an Ascomycota).  Not a huge literature out there if you search just for this species name but thanks to Wikipedia I found out there are some synonyms so if you search Pubmed for all the names one gets 328 papers and 56 of these have free full text including a few that seem quite useful:

So – seems that what happens here is the fungus infects larva and then kills them and then a fruiting body grows out of the caterpillars head … fun.
Snooping around led to some other news stories about this system including many that came out recently
Anyway – seems like this would be a fun organism for genome sequencing … 

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

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