March 28, 2016

Greed in the mushroom patch

In a public confession written over 21 years ago, disclosed only early this year, Olympic champion Wang Junxia, 46 years old today, and nine of her then teammates admitted having been forced by their coach to dope themselves. In 1993, the runner had smashed the world records for the 3,000 and 10,000 meters. At the time, the coach explained the astonishing performance by a rigorous training and a regular intake of cordyceps mixed with turtle blood. 

The caterpillar fungus ( Ophiocordyceps sinensis) has proven properties, but its fame in traditional Chinese medicine is also due to its spectacular entomophagy. Its spores germinate in the guts of an insect. After a while, the mushroom takes command of the host, drives it to climb a blade of grass, pierces its skull and disperses its spores who will find their way in the guts of another host.  How not to believe in supernatural powers? 

So much so that picking Cordyceps has become the main source of income for Tibetan farmers. It is also a source of conflict and deception. In 2011, six villagers in Nepal were sentenced to life imprisonment, thirteen others, to two years in prison for having thrown down a cliff eight poachers who were picking on their territory. 

The main bioactive compound of Cordyceps is cordycepin whose anti-tumor properties are established. From another member of the same genus (C. sinclairii), Novartis made Gilenya against multiple sclerosis.

Still another caterpillar fungus, the Military Cordyceps (C. militaris) is more familiar here. Common in our latitudes, it is difficult to spot because it parasites underground larvae. According to a 2015 analysis by J.S.L. Chan & al. in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, it also contains the similar nutrients (proteins, amino-acids, vitamins, minerals) and bioactive compounds. Of course, you will first have to find one, before providing some to hockey players of the Toronto Maple Leafs. 

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