Many modern drugs are the purified form of chemicals present in
traditional medicines. Aspirin is made chemically now in pure form, but the
original source was willow bark. Digitalis was originally purified from fox
glove, a flower, and ephedrine from a desert shrub. Only a few fungi have been
used as traditional medicines. Scientists continue to visit other countries to
collect and study traditional medicines hoping to discover new drug sources.
The caterpillar fungus is a traditional medicine that has been widely used as a tonic and/or medicine by the Chinese for hundreds of years. The use of this fungus was relatively unknown in this country until it was credited for the success of Chinese women athletes at the National Games in Beijing, in 1993. Three Chinese track runners set new world records during the Games at three different distances, 10,000 m, 15,000 m and 30,000 m. Their coach, Ma Zunren, attributed the runners success to intensive training as well as a stress-relieving tonic prepared from the caterpillar fungus.
In the old days, Chinese people thought that the caterpillar fungus (Dong chong xiz cao) were worms. However, after years of study, it was found that it really is a fruiting body produced by the fungus, Cordyceps sinesis, on dead caterpillars of the moth Hepilus fabricius. Spores of Cordyceps sinensis grow inside the caterpillars filling the caterpillar with filaments (hyphae). When the caterpillar dies the fungus produces a stalked fruiting body that produces spores. The spores are spread in the wind to the next generation of caterpillars. Uninfected caterpillars pupate into relatively large primitive moths.
The moth is found in the south central Provinces of Guizhou, Hubei, Gansu, Qinghai, Shanxi, Sichuan, Sizang, Yunnan, and Zhejiang. Infected caterpillars are often found in soft soil under trees in mountains over 4000 m high, or in cold, well-drained grassy marshlands. The life cycle of uninfected moths takes two years to complete. Most other moths have shorter life cycles. Hepilus fabricius and other species of Hepialus live in vertical tunnels in the soil and emerge at night to feed on roots or aerial portions of plants. Some species are serious pests of pastures.
The use of the caterpillar fungus is believed to have started a thousand years ago. It was either ground into a powder, or mixed with other tonics.
Today the most common way to prepare the caterpillar fungus is to stuff a duck with the caterpillar fungus then after boiling the duck in hot water, patients drink the liquid. It sounds unpleasant, but Vivian reports the aroma is pleasant and the broth tastes sweet. The caterpillar fungus is reported to have many benefits as a traditional medicine. Some consider the benefits to be similar to those of another valuable Chinese tonic, ginseng. Traditonal Chinese medicines like the caterpillar fungus and ginseng are bought in Chinese drug stores. The price varies from $27 to $53 a pound depending on quality. The fungus fruiting body has been removed in the most expensive grade. Caterpillar fungi are also used as gifts. A large gift box costs about $400.
Some people believe the caterpillar fungus cures tuberculosis, coughing, anemia, and back and knee pains. Today, the caterpillar fungus is mainly used as a tonic to increase strength or for rejuvenation after a long serious injury. Some also believe that the fungus can also reduce stress. If scientific research supports these claims and identifies the active ingredients produced by the fungus it may become very valuable in modern medicine. Scientists have already identified several compounds isolated that might be useful when purified as drugs to combat some types of cancer and lymphocytes [natural killer cells].
In addition to it being a possible source of drugs the caterpillar fungus might also be useful in controlling moths that damage pastures.
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Last update: 16 Mar 98. This page was written by Lai Ming (Vivian) Luk and edited by Robert Fogel and Patricia Rogers. This project was supported in part by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program at the University of Michigan.