Specimen Spotlight - Ophiocordyceps sinensis

October 25, 2021
Specimen Spotlight - Ophiocordyceps sinensis

It came from within…

Sensationalist news headlines often describe a “zombie fungus” that lurks among us, taking over the brains of helpless insects and forcing them to do its bidding. In science fiction books, movies, and videogames such as The Girl with All the Gifts and The Last of Us, these parasites can even mutate and infect humans, resulting in terrifying and apocalyptic consequences. While these pathogens may sound fantastical, they represent real, interesting organisms that we can find in our collections at the Farlow Herbarium.

Pictured here is a specimen we often bring out for the “wow” (or “ick”) factor on tours: an entomopathogenic fungus called Ophiocordyceps sinensis emerging from a mummified caterpillar. The spores of this fungus infect a host, spreading the mycelium through the host’s body and digesting its internal organs. After colonizing and killing the host from the inside out, the fungus produces a lengthy fruiting body that emerges to spread its spores to the next unsuspecting insect. As peculiar as it may look, this specimen is not unique in our herbarium: we have over 100 collections in the genera Cordyceps and Ophiocordyceps on a variety of hosts such as ants, caterpillars, cicadas, spiders, and even other fungi.

This species of fungus has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries and is commoditized globally today. Supplements derived from Cordyceps are marketed to treat a wide range of diseases and are sold as capsules and powders. As these treatments become more widespread and desirable to many around the world, the fungus is increasingly threatened by overharvesting. If the Cordyceps industry continues to grow unsustainably, this frightening fungus may disappear altogether.

O. sinensis

Thank you to Curatorial Assistant Hannah Merchant for this month's Specimen Spotlight!