My internship here in China is with the Good Agricultural Practices group here at SNNU. The majority of their research involves products that are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Many of you know of my interest in tradition Chinese medicine, which makes this internship opportunity even more exciting for me. As of tomorrow I begin my lab work involving one of the most expensive, non-animal products used in TCM. In China, the product is call Dong Chong Xia Cao (while literally means "winter worm, summer grass"), but it's scientific name is Ophiocordyceps sinensis). Here is a look at what we're dealing with:
What you see here is the result of a parasitic relationship between ghost moth caterpillars and fungi. Located mostly in the regions of Tibet and Nepal, these caterpillars become infected with the cordyceps fungus and proceed to bury themselves into the ground. The fungus then mummifies the caterpillar and waits until early summer to produce the sought after fruiting body. When you buy this product, you typically get the caterpillar and fungus together and it'll cost you about $12-17,000 per kilogram! No wonder they call it soft gold. The fact that I get to work with this product at all is amazing.
That'll be $5000 please!
So why do we want to eat these creepy things? Traditionally, is was thought to be an aphrodisiac (like most TCM products?), but also a treatment for ailments ranging from fatigue to cancer. Today, we know that there are a few potentially powerful pharmaceuticals present in cordyceps. Some of which may help protect the body from irradiation and boost the immune system's ability to fight cancer. Modern lab techniques have allowed us to discover that not only are there useful compounds but also multiple species of fungi contained within cordyceps. So which species are producing these helpful compounds? That's what I hope to find out!