Caterpillar fungus, the world’s most valuable parasite, can cost up to $63,000 per pound

  • Caterpillar fungus is a hybrid of a fungus that kills and lives in caterpillars.
  • It can sell for up to three times its weight in gold and can cost as much as about $63,000 per pound.
  • Some towns in the Himalayas rely on collecting and selling this fungus for a living.
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Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: What would you do if a fungus invaded your body, and started consuming you from the inside? It sounds like something out of a horror film, but that’s actually what happens to a certain type of baby moth.

The fungus eats its way through the helpless moth larvae and then sprouts out of their heads like a spring daisy. But this rare hybrid, the caterpillar fungus, isn’t just totally fascinating, it’s also expensive. Sometimes selling for more than 3 times its weight in gold!

Caterpillar fungus grows in the remote Tibetan Plateau and Himalayan Mountains but that’s not the only place you can find it. Here we are in New York City’s Chinatown. And nestled among countless drawers of dried mugwort leaves and hibiscus flowers,

There it is a small pile of 50 or so pieces of dried caterpillar fungus. Here, 1 gram of it costs about $30. But even that might be considered a good deal. Vendors on eBay, for example, list a gram for up to $125. The price is so high because this hybrid creature is incredibly rare.

It shows up for only a few weeks each year in remote regions of Nepal, Tibet, India and Bhutan. And even then, the fungus can be tricky for collectors to find, hidden amidst a sea of grass. For centuries, it’s been a staple of traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine.

Kelly Hopping: “Traditionally, it was used as a general tonic, for immune support.”

For instance, a family might add half of this to a chicken soup. And it’s even rumored that it can be used as a sort of Himalayan viagra though there’s little evidence to back it up. People also buy the fungus as a gift or use it for bribes or as a status symbol. As a result, better looking pieces fetch a higher price.

Kelly Hopping: “It’s all dependent on exactly the color of the caterpillar fungus, even the shape of its body when it died, all of these things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with medicinal value make all the difference for the economic value.”

In 2017, for example, high quality pieces sold for as much as $140,000 per kg, or about $63,000 per pound. Now, caterpillar fungus has always been pricey. But experts say its value really skyrocketed in the 1990s and 2000s because of a growing Chinese economy, and the resulting increase in disposable income. Which ultimately, helped drive a massive boom in harvest.

In the Tibet Autonomous Region, for example, collectors reportedly hauled out more than three times as much caterpillar fungus in the early 2000s, than they did in the 1980s. And now, many families depend on the cash it brings in.

In fact, experts say that up to 80% of household income in the Tibetan Plateau and Himalayas can come from selling caterpillar fungus. One district in Nepal reported collecting $4.7 million worth of caterpillar fungus in 2016. That’s 12% more than the district’s annual budget! But those profits are at risk.

Surveys indicate that annual harvests have recently declined.

Kelly Hopping: “The collectors themselves mostly attributed this to overharvesting, acknowledging that their own collection pressure was driving these declines.”

And it doesn’t help that it’s difficult to regulate the harvest.

Daniel Winkler: “All these different political units have different policy. In the end, it is really down to county level, how it’s implemented.”

Climate change is also causing problems. You see, the fungus is more abundant in areas with long, cold winters, which are increasingly hard to come by.

Daniel Winkler: “For the rural economy, if there’s a lot of loss, that would be devastating.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in March 2019.

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Deadly fungi are becoming drug-resistant, and it’s the next big public health threat, experts say

Candida auris
Scientific illustration of Candida auris.

  • Some fungi have recently evolved drug resistance, to the concern of scientists.
  • Fungi like C. auris infect the most vulnerable patients with compromised immune systems.
  • COVID-19 treatments can leave hospitalized patients defenseless against superbugs.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Before scientists knew about COVID-19, drug-resistant germs dominated the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of urgent threats.

Experts have been warning against the overuse of antibiotics for many years in fear that they could spawn dangerous superbugs, or drug-resistant bacteria. But more recently, fungi have begun to evolve defenses against medicines used to treat them as well.

Candida auris, for one, is known to sweep hospitals and nursing homes, infecting the most vulnerable patients and resisting most antifungal drugs. Infectious disease experts braced themselves for the dangerous fungus before it reached the US in 2016, as they had seen it wreak havoc in other countries, Maryn McKenna wrote for Scientific American.

Globally, more than 300 million people are infected with fungal diseases each year and 25 million are at high risk of dying or losing their sight – more than annual deaths from malaria or tuberculosis, according to estimates by the Global Action Fund for Fungal Infections.

By the end of 2020, there were more than 1,500 cases of C. auris in the US across 23 states. COVID-19 put the rising concern about C. auris on pause for some, but others worried the virus and the fungus would collide.

Fungi can infect the most vulnerable patients, including those with COVID

Many interventions used to treat COVID-19, such as steroids, suppress the immune system when it is acting out of control. However, this leaves patients defenseless to opportunistic infections like C. auris, Aspergillus fumigatus, and other drug-resistant germs.

Los Angeles and Orange County saw several hundred cases of C. auris in hospitals and long-term care facilities; in India, the fungus infected a 65-bed ICU and killed two thirds of patients who contracted it on top of COVID-19.

The fungus is so pervasive that it causes problems for healthcare systems as well.

In one case at Mount Sinai Hospital before the pandemic, a man died after a 90-day battle with C. auris. The hospital needed to bring in special cleaning equipment and even ripped out some of the floor and ceiling tiles because the whole room had been infected.

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