Genome survey uncovers the secrets of sex and lifestyle in caterpillar fungus


The caterpillar fungus Ophiocordyceps sinensis (best known as Cordyceps sinensis) mummifies ghost moth larvae exclusively in Tibetan Plateau alpine ecosystems. Touted as “Himalayan Viagra”, the fungus is highly prized due to its medical benefits and dwindling supplies. Attempts to culture the sexual fruiting-body have failed and the huge market demand has led to severe devastation of local ecosystems and to the fungus heading towards extinction. By genome sequencing, we establish that unlike related insect pathogens O. sinensis contains two compatible mating-type genes in its genome and is self-fertile, i.e. homothallic. However, sexual processes are only initiated under native environmental conditions. O. sinensis resembles biotrophic plant pathogens in having a genome shaped by retrotransposon-driven expansions. The resulting changes in gene content suggest that O. sinensis has a biphasic pathogenic mechanism beginning with stealth pathogenesis in early host instars. O. sinensis is the first psychrophilic fungus sequenced and is adapted to extreme cold with putative antifreeze proteins and mechanisms for increasing lipid accumulation and fatty acid unsaturation. We hypothesize that for the inbreeding O. sinensis the massive proliferation of retrotransposons provides a tradeoff between the advantages of increased genetic variation independent of sexual recombination and deletion of genes dispensable for its specialized pathogenic lifestyle.


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Correspondence to ChengShu Wang.

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These authors contributed equally to this work.

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Hu, X., Zhang, Y., Xiao, G. et al. Genome survey uncovers the secrets of sex and lifestyle in caterpillar fungus. Chin. Sci. Bull. 58, 2846–2854 (2013).

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  • Ophiocordyceps sinensis
  • genome expansion
  • homothallism
  • biotrophic parasitism
  • psychrophile