A rare, strange fungus - pushed across Asia as an anti-ageing elixir - that eats its hosts from the inside and is sometimes costlier than gold has been grown in a petri dish by defence scientists.
The first Indian breakthrough in artificially creating what is regarded as the world's costliest fungi was made at a Himalayan field station of the little-known Defence Institute of Bio-Energy Research.
The finest variety of the fungus will set you back Rs 27,000 for 10 gm in China, against Rs 19,830 for a similar quantity of gold in India at today's prices.
The bio-energy institute's parent body is the country's largest scientific organisation, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which has filed a patent for the artificial version of the killer fungus and transferred the technology to an unnamed private firm for commercial production.
"This has opened new vistas for pharmaceutical industries in India who (sic) used to import the raw material from China," Dr Ranjit Singh, lead researcher of the team that grew the fungus, told The Hindustan Times.
Known in India as Yarsha Gamboo (Yursta gunbu in Tibet), the precious, parasitic fungus is an "important" anti-aging medicine, said a paper in the latest issue of the journal Current Science, where the scientists reported their breakthrough.
The fungus' compounds have been found beneficial for a range of ailments that include rheumatoid arthritis, impotence and cirrhosis. Traditional healers use the caterpillar fungus to treat chronic bronchitis, insomnia, pneumonia, tuberculosis, among other ailments.
Known for growing inside its caterpillar host and eating it alive, Ophiocordyceps sinensis, to use its scientific name, is found in the frigid and arid alpine reaches of the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau.
It costs Rs 3 lakh per kg in India, Rs 5 lakh on average in the international market, with the finest specimens in Shanghai markets going for Rs 27 lakh.
The caterpillar fungus grows between 12,000 and 16,000 feet in the Garhwal and Kumaon Himalayas. Reaching its breeding grounds is difficult, requiring treks up to 45 km to the base of glaciers.
"Huge commercial demand has led to excessive harvest and a dramatic decline in its numbers," wrote seven Chinese scientists in a recent paper in the international journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.
Though the Indian breakthrough is significant, no one has yet got the fruiting part of the fungus, the stromata, to grow in a laboratory.
Earlier this year, a senior Thai official, Dr Somyos Kittimankhong, claimed he had spent three years and several million of his own bhat (the Thai currency) trying to germinate the caterpillar fungus. The claim was later found to be untrue.
Commercial production will not be easy, but it worries some researchers who fear it will undermine income for village gatherers.
"I (would) rather have a million of marginalized people earn some cash than one company making millions," American researcher Daniel Winkler wrote in his blog earlier this year. "However, many Chinese consumers are willing to pay more for the natural product collected in the wild, so even if these cultivation techniques succeed the bottom should not fall out of the market."