Cordyceps and Ophiocordyceps are types of fungi that affect insects. Fictional works have explored Cordyceps infections in humans. However, this fungus is not likely to cause infection in humans in the near future.

Many people are familiar with the name Cordyceps due to its inclusion in the popular video game and television series, The Last of Us. Other people may have seen insects infected with Cordyceps or Ophiocordyceps spores in nature documentaries. Alternatively, some may have tried Cordyceps supplements.

While the Cordyceps fungus is not likely to mutate and cause infection in humans, climate change may be contributing to an overall rise in other types of fungal infections across the globe. The World Health Organization (WHO) also highlights that fungal pathogens are becoming increasingly resistant to treatment.

This article explores the Cordyceps fungus in more detail, including how it affects insects and the potential benefits and risks of taking Cordyceps supplements. It also discusses other types of fungal infections.

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Cordycipitaceae and Ophiocordycipitaceae, which this article will refer to as the Cordyceps fungus, are taxonomic families of parasitic fungi. According to older research, many of these fungi parasitize arthropods, which are invertebrates, such as insects, and arachnids, such as spiders.

Taxonomic families include different genera — or plural of genus — which themselves include different species. Scientists classify organisms into these taxonomic groups to better understand how they relate to each other and how they may have evolved. Fungal organisms comprise their own taxonomic kingdom, separate from plants and animals.

There are over 400 species of Cordyceps fungi. Some types of arthropods that Cordyceps fungi may infect include:

  • ants
  • beetles
  • locusts
  • butterflies
  • moths
  • spiders

Some species, such as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis sensu lato, may affect multiple species of insects. In one reported case, the fungus infected different species of ants in a laboratory setting. However, other Cordyceps fungi have evolved to infect specific arthropod species.

Scientists are still investigating and debating how different Cordyceps fungi relate to each other and other types of fungi.

Cordyceps and ‘mind control’ in insects

While not all Cordyceps fungi parasitize arthropods, many of them do.

For example, when an Ophiocordyceps spore from species, such as Ophiocordyceps camponoti-atricipis and Ophiocordyceps pseudolloydii, infects an ant, it causes them to move constantly and wander away from their colony.

The infected ant then moves upward, such as up a tree trunk, before the Ophiocordyceps species induces biting behavior. This causes the ant’s jaws to clamp down, on a tree branch, for example. Then, the fruiting body of the fungus erupts from the ant’s head and releases spores into the air that infect other ants.

Scientists are still learning about how entomopathogenic, or insect-infecting, fungi modify the behavior of their hosts. Different species affect insect behavior in different ways, and they may also release different chemicals or occupy different areas of the host’s body.

“Zombie-making” entomopathogenic fungi, such as Ophiocordyceps species, are specialists, meaning they have evolved specifically to infect insects and often specific insect species. Therefore, it is unlikely that they would mutate to cause infection in humans.

In some parts of the world, such as China, people may use Cordyceps fungi in traditional medicine. Some species that people have cultivated for their potential therapeutic properties include:

  • Cordyceps sinensis
  • Cordyceps sobolifera
  • Cordyceps cicadicola
  • Cordyceps liangshanesis
  • Cordyceps ophioglossoides
  • Cordyceps militaris

Potential benefits of cordycepin

Cordyceps contains a range of bioactive components, including cordycepin, which may have the following properties:

  • antitumor
  • anti-diabetic
  • anti-inflammatory, which means it prevents inflammation
  • antimicrobial, which means it destroys or stops microbes from growing
  • inhibiting platelet aggregation, meaning it stops platelets in the blood from sticking together and forming blood clots
  • hypolipidemic, which means it reduces the concentration of lipids, or fatty substances, in the blood
  • analgesic, which means pain relieving
  • immunomodulatory, which means they modulate the immune system

Researchers suggest that cordycepin may have the potential to treat a range of conditions, including:

However, existing research into cordycepin largely derives from animal studies, so these findings may not apply to humans. Further studies and clinical trials are necessary to identify the effectiveness and safe doses of cordycepin in humans.

Potential side effects

Research indicates that further studies into the safety and optimum dosages of cordycepin are necessary. Some people have reported the following side effects after taking Cordyceps:

According to research, there have also been reports of lead poisoning after taking Cordyceps. Additionally, people with systemic lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis should avoid taking it.

People should speak with a doctor before taking any supplements, including Cordyceps or cordycepin, as they may interact with medications, other supplements, or food. A healthcare professional may also be able to recommend reputable supplement manufacturers.

Further resources

For more in-depth resources about vitamins, minerals, and supplements, visit our dedicated hub.

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In October 2022, the WHO released its first-ever list of health-threatening fungi, as fungal infections are becoming increasingly common and resistant to treatment.

Fungal infections can affect humans, other animals, and plants, and researchers suggest that climate change may be contributing to an increase in fungal infections globally.

Members of the Fusarium graminearum species complex infect crops, such as wheat and cereals, and some species produce mycotoxins, which may affect human and animal health. Scientists hypothesize that they have adapted to warmer temperatures in response to climate change.

Similarly, Candida auris, which affects people, has spread worldwide and appears resistant to antifungal and disinfectant treatment. Scientists do not know its exact origins, but they hypothesize that it emerged due to climate change.

Finally, some fungal infections are contributing to biodiversity loss. For example, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis has spread to all continents where amphibians live and is responsible for the most significant loss of amphibian diversity in history. Scientists hypothesize that this outbreak has links to climate change and warming temperatures in the northern hemisphere.

Researchers suggest that unless people take action to reduce carbon emissions, climate change will continue and may have many severe effects, such as the emergence of new pathogens, including fungal infections.

However, other factors, such as global travel, both by individuals on a personal basis and commercial shipping, for example, may contribute to the spread of fungal infections and other pathogens.

Despite their inclusion in popular works of fiction, Cordyceps fungi are not likely to evolve to trigger infections in humans in the future. Many Cordyceps species are highly specialized to infect certain species of arthropods, such as ants or spiders.

Research suggests that cordycepin, a bioactive component of Cordyceps, may have therapeutic potential for certain conditions. However, further studies into its efficacy and safety are necessary.

While Cordyceps fungi are unlikely to pose a significant threat to humans, research suggests that other fungal infections are increasing worldwide, potentially due to climate change.