A fungus that attacks caterpillars’ brains could (it is a bit mind-boggling) benefit humans.
As Care2 previously reported, this fungus brings a gruesome death to all caterpillars:
with their last bits of strength, they did something that would be out of the question if they were healthy: they climbed out onto the very highest leaves of their tree in the middle of the day. There, their diseased bodies split open, raining infected caterpillar guts onto the leaves and branches below.
Scientists have found that a chemical in the caterpillar fungus, cordecypin, has anti-inflammatory properties that could lead to the development of new drugs to treat cancer, asthma, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and cardiovascular disease. Not bad for a parasitic fungus that turns caterpillars into zombies.
For all of its lethal powers, cordyceps is highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine where it is known as the “Tibetan mushroom” and the “golden worm” and believed to treat a host of ailments, including erectile dysfunction and cancer. A pound of the fungus can fetch $50,000 in markets, says National Geographic. Patients either brew the fungus into a tea or — one wonders what they know of what it does to the caterpillars? — chew it raw.
Numerous substances, including many taken at great pain from animals such as bile from bears, are used in traditional Chinese medicine, though evidence for their healing properties is often highly anecdotal. Scientists from the University of Nottingham have actually tested cordyceps and found that it inhibits swelling at the genetic level, by blocking a process called polyadenylation.
As study co-author Cornelia H. de Moor says in National Geographic, “Inflammation is normally a beneficial response to a wound or infection, but in diseases like asthma it happens too fast and to too high of an extent. When cordycepin is present, it inhibits that response strongly.”
Most of us are unlikely to encounter cordecypin unless we visit the high Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayan range where 96 percent of the world caterpillar fungus originates. The fungus that Tibetans call yartsa gunbu (“summer grass, winter worm”) only grows at elevations of 10,000 to 16,500 feet and cannot be farmed; one fungus-attacked caterpillar carries a price of $30.
Another rare caterpillar fungus, Cordyceps militaris, can be farmed and made available for scientific study. An increase in demand for yartsa gunbu could be dangerous, as would people trying it.
De Moor indeed cautions against people trying the “golden worm” to heal any ailments. No prescription medicine contains the fungus, whose benefits can currently be only gained from consuming it. As De Moor says, “each sample could have a completely different dose, and there are mushrooms where [taking] a single bite will kill you.” Traditional healers would not “notice a 10 percent mortality rate resulting from herbal remedies” but such would be “completely unacceptable” in the scientific world.
In other words, what’s deadly for caterpillars could be a lifesaver for humans — a pretty explosive thought on its own.
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