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Cordyceps is a genus of ascomycete fungi that includes thousands of species. The species that parasitizes the vegetable caterpillar ? Cordyceps sinensis is the most famous of these, having long been considered a precious ingredient in Chinese traditional medicines.

All Cordyceps species are parasitic, mainly on insects and other arthropods (they are thus entomopathogenic fungi); a few are parasitic on other fungi like the subterranean, truffle-like Elaphomyces. The mycelium invades and eventually replaces the host tissue, while the elongated fruiting body (stroma) may be cylindrical, branched, or of complex shape. The stroma bears many small, flask-shaped perithecia that contain the asci. These in turn contain the thread-like ascospores, which usually break into fragments and are presumably infective.

The genus has a worldwide distribution and most species have been described from Asia (notably China, Japan, Korea and Thailand). The genus has many anamorphs (asexual states), of which Beauveria (possibly including Beauveria bassiana), Metarhizium, and Isaria) are the better known, since these have been used in biological control of insect pests. 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, like cordycepin; the anamorph of Cordyceps subsessilis (Tolypocladium inflatum) was the source of ciclosporin ? a drug helpful in human organ transplants, as it suppresses the immune system (Immunosuppressive drug).

Cordyceps sinensis

Cordyceps sinensis is a species of fungus found in southwest, mountainous China that attacks caterpillars, specifically the larvae of hepialid moths (identified as species of Hepialus or Thitarodes). The caterpillars feed on the roots of trees and shrubs on the slopes of the Himalayas. When infected by C. sinensis, the bug's entire body cavity is filled by the fungus mycelium, killing the host, and the caterpillars die near the tops of their burrows. A dark brown, finger-like stroma sprouts near their heads. The entire fungus-caterpillar combination is hand-collected for medicinal use.

According to Bensky (2006), laboratory-grown C. sinensis mycelium has similar clinical efficacy and less associated toxicity. He notes a toxicity case of constipation, abdominal distension, and decreased peristalsis, two cases of irregular menstruation, and one case report of amenorrhea following ingestion of tablets or capsules containing C. sinensis. In Chinese medicine C. sinensis is considered sweet and warm, it enters the Lung and Kidney channels, and the typical dosage is 3-9 grams (Bensky 2006).

In China C. sinensis has been called "Dong Chong Xia Cao," which can be translated "winter worm summer grass." It is also known as Aweto in China and Tibet, and as Yarchagumba in Tibet. In English it is often called "caterpillar fungus" or "vegetable worm."

The excessive collecting of Cordyceps sinensis for sale in traditional medicine poses a threat for the environment of the Tibetan plateau where it grows. The high price of wild C. sinensis has led unscrupulous harvesters to insert twigs or even lead wires into the stromata, thereby increasing the weight and price paid. Cultivated C. sinensis mycelium is a more sustainable alternative to wild-harvested C. sinensis, and may offer improved consistency. Artificial culture of C. sinensis is typically by growth of the pure mycelium in liquid culture--stromata are not produced apart from the insect host.


  • D Bensky, A Gamble, S Clavey, E Stoger, L Lai Bensky. 2006. Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica (3rd ed.). Eastland Press.
  • Y Kobayasi. 1941. The genus Cordyceps and its allies. Science Reports of the Tokyo Bunrika Daigaku, Sect. B 5:53-260.
  • EB Mains. 1957. Species of Cordyceps parasitic on Elaphomyces. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 84:243-251.
  • EB Mains. 1958. North American entomogenous species of Cordyceps. Mycologia 50:169-222.
  • SS Tzean, LS Hsieh, WJ Wu. 1997. Atlas of entomopathogenic fungi from Taiwan. Taiwan, Council of Agriculture, Executive Yuan.

Cordyceps Sinensis Alohaensis Hybrid strain contains the highest HEAA (Hydroxy Ethyl Adenosine Analogs) levels ever measured and biological active ingredient levels about 5.3 times higher than the best wild collected samples.

Cordyceps Sinensis Cs-4
The wild fruiting form of Cordyceps used in Traditional Chinese Medicine is extremely rare in the wild and because of this it is very expensive. Chinese scientists spent many years looking for a vegetative form of Cordyceps that would produce the same active compounds as the fruit body; the result of that research is the Cordyceps strain Cs-4.

Cordyceps militaris

by Michael Kuo

Cordyceps militaris is pretty much the coolest mushroom ever, and I will detail its features in a moment--but first I am obliged to discuss CMS, a common problem among mushroom hunters and mycologists. The acronym stands for Cordyceps Moron Syndrome, and symptoms present in two ways. The CMS sufferer 1) plucks any club fungus instantly from its substrate, regardless of what treasures might be found beneath the mushroom, and 2) cannot manage to take a decent photo of a Cordyceps even when the first symptom is bypassed.

The genus Cordyceps consists of clublike parasites that attack underground puffballs or insects. The puffball-parasitizing species are cool enough (see Cordyceps ophioglossoides for an example, and see the Key to Mycotrophs for a key to 5 North American species), but the bug parasites are astounding. They erupt from insects, bringing to mind the infamous scene in Alien in which John Hurt has a very bad meal.

Cordyceps militaris is the best-known and most frequently collected bug-killing Cordyceps, but there are dozens of "entomogenous" species in North America. The victim for Cordyceps militaris is a pupa or larva (usually of a butterfly or moth). Its mycelium colonizes the living insect and mummifies it, keeping it alive just long enough to generate the biomass it needs to produce the mushroom--a "spore factory" that allows the Cordyceps to reproduce.

With Cordyceps militaris the bug is buried in the ground or in well decayed wood, which means the mushroom collector usually sees only a little orange club with a finely pimply surface. Since I suffer from CMS, the one time I found Cordyceps militaris I assumed I was looking at Clavulinopsis laeticolor, took some half-hearted pictures and plucked the thing promptly, without digging up the bug. Fortunately, Andy Methven and George Barron do not suffer from CMS, and their wonderful photos to the right depict Cordyceps militaris in all its murderous glory.

Get this: Cordyceps lloydii (you really need to click the link and see the photos) attacks living ants and secretes a chemical that compels them to climb to the top of the Costa Rican canopy and attach themselves to leaves; then the mushroom erupts from the ant's head or body to disperse spores into wind currents.

Or this: Imagine that Sigourney Weaver and the others, in Alien, could have sensed that John Hurt was infected by an alien parasite, and killed him and quarantined his body rather than sitting down to lunch with him and a secret new shipmate. This is more or less what happens among some ants and termites that have evolved the ability to detect Cordyceps-infected compadres; sentry soldiers guarding the Queen kill the infected insects and take their bodies far from the nest before they can threaten the colony.

Cordyceps militaris is unappetizing and inedible, as food--but a host of both legitimate and flaky-New-Age pharmacological uses for Cordyceps extracts can be found by Googling "cordyceps"; feel free to investigate.


Ecology: Parasitic on buried larvae and pupae of insects (primarily moths and butterflies); growing alone or gregariously; summer and fall; widely distributed in North America but apparently more common east of the Rocky Mountains.

Fruiting Body: 2-8 cm long; up to about .5 cm wide; club-shaped, with the top wider than the base; the upper portion orange and pimply, the lower portion smooth and orange to pale orange, often curved; narrowing at the base and arising from the buried pupa or larva; flesh pale watery orange, with an outer cortex.

Microscopic Features: Perithecia embedded in a layer of loosely interwoven cells; sometimes appearing half-embedded or superficial. Asci 300-510 x 3.5-5 µ, with caps 3.5-5 µ thick. Spores segmented and threadlike; breaking into elliptical segments 2-4.5 x 1-1.5 µ.

REFERENCES: (Linnaeus, 1753) Link, 1833. (Mains, 1958; Smith, Smith & Weber, 1981; Breitenbach & Kränzlin, 1984; Arora, 1986; Phillips, 1991/2005; Lincoff, 1992; Metzler & Metzler, 1992; Barron, 1999; Roody, 2003; McNeil, 2006.) Herb. Kuo 08180607.

Cordyceps militaris

Perhaps one of the most fascinating Cordyceps is C.sinensis found in China and Tibet. This is a highly prized edible fungus found in the mountains of Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet. It is made into soup and the best specimens will still be attached to their parasitised pupae. More than a culinary delicacy, it is one of the best medicinal mushrooms. It is known in Chinese as Dong Chong Xia Cao, (winter insect, summer grass). It grows in grasslands over 3000m in altitude and is usually collected at the summer equinox before the last snows have melted. In former times, its use was restricted to the Emperors' palace due to its rarity.

It is regarded as being excellent tonic for depletion, weakness and impotence. In one trial, 1 gram per day was given for 46 days to 155 men suffering from impotence and at the end of the study, 30% had returned to normal sexual life and 64% in total had  showed improvement. It is also used for excessive tiredness, persistent cough, debility, anaemia, asthma and cancer. As it is also good for strengthening the lungs and many world record beating (and controversial) Chinese athletes have taken it regularly. It is particularly recommended for the elderly. 

It is now grown on organic whole-grain substrates which make it an affordable medicine no longer restricted to emperors.

English Title: Current understanding of molecular systematics of Cordyceps.
Personal Authors: Jiang Yi, Yao YiJian
Author Affiliation: Systematic Mycology and Lichenology Laboratory, Institute of Microbiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100080, China.
Document Title: Journal of Fungal Research, 2004 (Vol. 2) (No. 1) 58-67


Recent development of molecular systematics of Cordyceps is reviewed. Phylogenetic studies have shown that Clavicipitaceae and other families of Hypocreales form a monophylogenetic group and that Cordyceps is closely related to other genera of Clavicipitaceae. Molecular research indicates that Cordyceps is a polyphyletic taxon with members of the genus forming several clades in rDNA sequence analyses. Among the subdivisions of the genus, only Cordyceps subgen. Neocordyceps appears to be monophyletic. A suggestion is that Cordyceps evolved in association with their hosts and that shifts between distantly related hosts occurred several times in the course of evolution. Type I intron in the large and small sub-units of nuclear rDNA has been found in different lineages of Cordyceps species and the inserting positions of the intron are closely related to the phylogeny of Cordyceps hosts. Several independent DNA sequence analyses support C. crassispora, C. gansuensis, C. multiaxialis, C. nepalensis and C. sinensis to be the same species because they share similar internal transcribed spacer (ITS) sequences. Random amplified polymorphic DNA and ITS analyses reveal genetic variation among C. sinensis populations from different locations of the Tibetan Plateau. Molecular methods have provided firm evidence which establishes the connection between the anamorphic and teleomorphic states of Cordyceps. Beauveria brongniartii, B. sobolifera, Hirsutella sinensis, Metarhizium anisopliae var. majus, Mariannaea pruinosa and Paecilomyces hawkesii have been determined to be the anamorph of C. brongniartii, C. sobolifera, C. sinensis, C. brittlebankisoides, C. pruinosa and C. gunnii, respectively. Sampling number and scope and the selection of samples have strong effects on the molecular results. The application of molecular markers in different research subjects and relationships between the anamorphs and teleomorphs are discussed.

Publisher: Jilin Agricultural University

About CAB Abstracts
CAB Abstracts contains a wealth of information on the following items that are related to the abstract above:
genetic markers, genetic variation, intergenic DNA, introns, molecular taxonomy, nucleotide sequences, phylogenetics, random amplified polymorphic DNA, reviews, taxonomy, Clavicipitaceae, Cordyceps brittlebankisoides, Cordyceps brongniartii, Cordyceps crassispora, Cordyceps gansuensis, Cordyceps gunnii, Cordyceps multiaxialis, Cordyceps nepalensis, Cordyceps pruinosa, Cordyceps sinensis, Cordyceps sobolifera, genetic variability, genotypic variability, genotypic variation, intergenic spacers, spacer DNA, systematics, Xizhang, Xizang, Cordyceps


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