This article discusses the World’s Most Valuable Parasite Is in Trouble, and so are the livelihoods of the people who depend on it.
Ten years ago, Kelly Hopping was driving through a Tibetan mountain pass when her Chinese colleague stopped the car, hopped out, walked to a roadside stall, and returned with what looked like a bag of Cheetos on sticks. Each orange lump was, in fact, a dead caterpillar whose body had been overrun by a fungus (the stick). Hopping’s colleague, whose mother had cancer, had bought them for their medicinal value—and he had parted with an astonishing $1,000 for about 250 pieces. “My mind was blown,” says Hopping, an ecologist at Boise State University.
The caterpillar fungus, Ophiocordyceps sinensis, is the world’s most valuable parasite. It’s a relative of the tropical fungus that turns ants into zombies, but unlike its infamous cousin, it is found only on the Tibetan plateau, where it infects the larvae of ghost moths. It has long been part of traditional Chinese medicine, and demand for it has risen so sharply in recent decades that in Beijing it is now worth three times its weight in gold. In Bhutan, one of the countries where the fungus is harvested, it accounts for a significant slice of the gross domestic product.