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"A Technical Description of Cordyceps"


Dongchonxiacao, Cordyceps, is the dry complex composed of the sclerotium of the fungus Cordyceps sinensis (Berk.) Sacc. (Clavicipitaceae) and the larva corpses of insects of the family Hepialidae, on which the fungus is parasitic. It is officially listed in the Chinese Pharmacopoeia and is used as hemostatic, mycolytic, antiasthmatic, and expectorant in the treatment of respiratory diseases and as a tonic.

Chemical Constituents

The chemical constituents of C. sinensis were first studied by Chatterjee et al. in 1957 [1]. A crystalline substance was isolated and named “cordycepic acid”, and was then identified by Sprecher and Sprinson as D-mannitol [2]. Further studies on the chemical constituents of Cordyceps revealed the presence of a series of known substances, but new structures or compounds with significant pharmacological efficacy were not found. The chemical constituents
isolated from C. sinensis were amino acids, steak acid, D-mannitol, mycose, ergosterol, uracil, adenine, adenosine [3,4], palmitic acid, cholesterolpalmitate and 5a-8a-epidioxy-5a-ergosta-6,22 dien-3pß-ol (48-l) [5]. 5a-8a-epidioxy-5a-ergosta-6,22dien-3ß-ol (48-1)

Since the production of C. sinensis has not satisfied demand, C. hawkesii was found as a substitute for C. sinensis. Comparison of the chemical constituents between C. hawkesii and C. sinensis based on thin-layer chromatography has shown that amino acid, alkaloid, sterol, and organic acid contents are similar [6,7]. 

Moreover, Cordyceps can be cultured submerged. Ergosterol, stearic acid, p-mannitol, mycose, uracil, uridine, adenine, adenosine. and 13 amino acids were seperated in both the cultured broth and mycelium of C. sinensis 181. In addition, C. bamesii [9, 10], C. liangshanensis [11], C. militaris [12], and C. shanxiensis [13] were investigated botanically and chemically. They were all used as substitutes for C. sinensis. The D-mannitol contents in C. bamesii and C. sinensis were 8.7% and 7.8%, respectively, and the ergosterol contents in C. bamesii and C. sinensis were 1.2% and 1-1% respectively. 

The contents of proteins, total amino acids, and alkaloids in both species were also similar [9]. Cultivation of C. bamesii was also reprorted [14]. From ascocarps of C. sinensis, as water-soluble polysaccharide was isolated and purified by etanol fractionation and gel filtration. D-Galactose and D-mannose in a molar ratio of 1:1 were obtained by acid hydrolysis of purified polysaccharide. Chemical degradation and carbon 13 NMR spectrometic analysis showed that this polysaccharide is a highly branched galacto-mannan with a mannan core and galactosyl oligomer branches [15]. 

A water-soluble, minor galactomannan containing a small proportion of protein was further isolated from a 5% Na,CO, extract of C. sinensis. It showed a homogeneous pattern in gel filtration and the molecular weight was estimated to be about 23,000. This minor polysaccharide was mainly composed of Do-mannose and D-galactose in a molar ratio of 35 and had a highly branched structure [16].


Both natural Cordyceps and cultured mycelia of C. sinensis have significant effects on the immune system of mice. They can increase the size of the spleen, decrease the size of the thymus, and prevent atrophy of spleen and liver and hypertrophy of the thymus in mice induced by cyclophosphamide [17]. The DNA, RNA, and protein contents in the enlarged spleen were significantly increased. The effect of the thymus was abolished by adrenalectomy. The extract increased the incorporation of [ H] thymidine into spleen DNA in vivo and the proliferation of splenocytes in vitro. The active principle was found to be present in the stroma rather than in the lanra [18].

The aqueous extracts of natural Cordyceps and the cultured mycelia of C. sinensis can enhance the production of macrophages and activate the functions of the phagocytic system. They not only enhance the phagocytic activity of the macrophages, but also increase the alkaline phosphatase activity of the macrophages [19]. In addition, serum hemolysin and spenocytic immunohemolytic activities were elevated in mice immune suppressed by hydrocortisone. 

In normal mice, however, no such regulatory effect on humoral immunity was observed [20]. The polysaccharide of C. sinensis also showed immunostimulating activity in mice. It activated the phagocytic function of the reticuloendothelial system and of macrophages in the abdominal cavity and increased blood serum IgG and plasma corticosterone levels and spleen weight. The polysaccharide also antagonized spleen atrophy and leukocyte decrease induced by cortisone and cyclophosphamide, and the reduction of phagocytic function of macrophages in the abdominal cavity, but did not inhibit the anti-inflammatory function of cortisone [21].

Some results of clinical studies with C. sinensis for treatment of tinnitus [22], chronic nephritis [23,24], arrhythmia [25], and sexual hypofunction [26] were recently reported. For instance, treatment with C. sinensis significantly decreased proteinuria of the patients with chronic nephritis in 24 h. Two patients with hematuria as the major clinical manifestation responded with strongly decreased erythrocyte counts in urine [23].

1. Chatterjee R. Srinivasan KS, Maiti PC (1957) Cordyceps sinensis: structure of cordycepic acid. J. Am. Pharm. Assoc. 46:114-118
2. Sprecher M. Sprinson DB (1963) A reinvestigation of the structure of “cordycepic acid’. J Org. Chem. 28:2490- 2491
3. Lu RM, Yang YC, Yang YP, Wang SF (1981) Study on chemical constituents in Cordyceps sinensis Sacc. Chin. Pharm. Bull. 1655
4. Xu WH, Xuc. Z. Ma JM (1988) Water-soluble constituents in Cordyceps sinensis. I. Bull. Chin. Mat. Med. 8:32- 33.
5. Xiao YQ, Liu JM, Tu YY (1983). Studies on chemical constituents in Cordyceps sinensis. I. Bull Chin Mat Med 8:32- 33
6. Huang HY, Chou SH, Ho HL (1980) Comparison of the chemical constituents between yaxianbangchoncao(Cordyceps hawkesii) and dongchonxiacao (C. sinensis). Chin Trad. Herbal Drugs 11:435-439
7. Huang HT, Chou SH, Ho HL (1981) Comparison of chemical constituents between Cordyceps hawkesii and C. sinensis. Chin Pharm Bull 1653
8. Lu RM, Yang YC, Yue DC, Wang SF, fan TJ, Huo ZM, Wang CF, Yang YP (1982) Chemical composition of the submerged culture of Cordyceps sp. No. 1. Weishengwuxue Tongbao 9:166-l 68
9. Yang HD, Ma ZL, Sun TQ, Zhang XC, Cai JG (1985) Comparative study on the chemical constituents between xiangbangchongcao (Cordyceps barnesii) and cordyceps (C. sinensis). Chin Trad Herbal Drugs 16:194195
10. Guo YW, Wang SM, Gao JD, Zhou YZ, Ma XF, Zhuang X, Cheng XB, Liu JH (1985) Preliminary study on Cordyceps bamesii comparison of chemical constituents between Cordyceps bamesii; and Cordyceps sinensis. Bull Chin Mat Med 10:129-131
11. Tan ZY, Gao R, Gao Y, Xie CZ (1985) Comparative study on the chemical constituents between liangshanchongcao (Cordyceps liangshanensis) and cordyceps (C. sinensis) Chin Trad herbal Drugs 16:196-l 98
12. Gao HA, Chenz SZ, Wang LR, Zhang LS, Li JR (1987) Comparison of some chemical constituents of Cordyceps militaris and Cordyceps sinensis Bull Chin Mat Med 12: 108-l 09
13. Liu B. Rong FX, Jin HS (1985) A new species of the genus cordyceps. J. Wuhan Bat Res 323-24
14. Ma XF, Chai QY, Hou X (1986) Survey of the ecology of Cordyceps bernesii. Bull Chin Mat Med 11 : 13-14
15. Miyazaki T, Oikawa N. Yamada H, (1977) Studies on fungal polysaccharides. XX Galactomannan of Cordyceps sinensis. Chem Pharm Bull 2533243328
16. Kiho T, Tabata H, Ukai S, Hara C (1986) Polysaccharides in fungi. XVIII. A minor proteincontaining galactomannan from a sodium carbonate extract of Cordyceps sinensis. Carbohydr Res 156:189-l 97
17. Chen DM, Zhang SL, Li ZN, Cheng ZQ. Liu XP (1985) Effect of natural cordyceps and the cultured mycelia of Cordyceps sinensis on murine immune organs and functions of mononuclear phagocyte system. Chin J lntegr Trad West med 5:4241
18. Liu GT, Xu RL (1985) lmmunopharmawlogy of Comceps sinensis Chin J lntegr Trad Western Med 5622-624
19, Zhang SL, Chen DM, Cheng ZQ, Liu XP (1985) Activation of murine peritoneal macrophage by the natural cordyceps and the cultured mycelia of Cordyceps sinensis. Chin J. lntegr Trad West Med 5:4547
20. Tang RJ, Wang ZP. Min ZH, Zhang J (1986) Pharmacology of natural cordyceps and cultured mycelia of Cordyceps sinesis. II Effects of immunologic function. Chin Trad Herbal Drugs 17:214216.
21. Zang QZ, He GX, Zheng ZY, Xu JH, Liu JZ, Wang SY, Huang JX, Du DJ, Zeng QT (1985) Pharmacological action of the polysaccharide from cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis). Chin Trad Herbal Drugs 16306-311
22, Zhuang JM, Chen HL (1985) Treatment of tinnitus with Cordyceps infusion: a report of 23 cases. Fujian Med J 7:42
23. Shen LM, Chen YP (1985) Treatment of 18 cases of chronic nephritis mainly with cultivated cordyceps. Liaoning J Trad Chin Med 9:32-33
24. Chen YP. Liu WZ, Shen LM, Xu SN (1986) Clinical effects of natural cordyceps and cultured mycelia of Cordyceps sinensis in kidney failure. Chin Trad Herbal Drugs 17:256-258
25. Yu HS (1985) Treatment of arrhythmia with Cordyceps sinensis. J Zhejiang Trad Chin Med Coll 9:28
26. Yang WZ, Deng XA, Hu W (1985) Treatment of sexual hypofunction with Cordyceps sinensis. Jiangxi Zhongyiyao 5:46-47

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