Sunday, March 25, 2018 by Frances Bloomfield
Psilocybin is the naturally occurring substance that puts the “magic” in “magic mushrooms.” Their psychedelic properties have made them popular for therapeutic, spiritual, and recreational use — for humans at least. But their biological purpose, as well as their evolutionary origins, has remained a mystery. Until now. A study, published in Evolution Letters, has suggested that mushrooms may have begun producing psilocybin as a defensive measure against predators.
To arrive at this conclusion, researchers from The Ohio State University worked off the idea that the genes responsible for psilocybin weren’t passed through a biological lineage. After all, there are dozens of species of magic mushrooms but no single family. Instead, the psilocybin genes were most likely transmitted via horizontal gene transfer. This is the movement of genetic material from one species to another in lieu of parent to child. According to Jason Slot, lead study author and assistant professor of fungal evolutionary genomics at The Ohio State University, horizontal gene transfer usually occurs as a result of environmental stressors.
Slot and his colleagues sequenced the genomes of three different magic mushroom species to see if this was the case. They then compared these fungi to closely related mushroom species that didn’t induce hallucinations. The researchers uncovered a cluster of five genes shared by the psychedelic mushrooms. According to Slot, these genes seem to have been transferred in an environment replete with animal dung and rotting wood. Mushrooms thrive in these conditions, but so do insects that eat mushrooms.
“We speculate that mushrooms evolved to be hallucinogenic because it lowered the chances of the fungi getting eaten by insects,” Slot explained.
Rather than causing hallucinations like in humans, psilocybin interferes with a neurotransmitter in the minds of insects, such as flies, that suppresses their appetites. “The psilocybin probably doesn’t just poison predators or taste bad. These mushrooms are altering the insects’ ‘mind’ — if they have minds — to meet their own needs,” Slot stated.
Though far from simply explaining the natural purposes of psilocybin, the team believes that their findings could have greater applications. Psilocybin is a subject of great interest among researchers involved in the treatment if mental disorders. In fact, some of these researchers are in the process of evaluating the efficacy of psychedelic mushrooms in remedying addiction, anxiety, and depression. Several cases of these disorders have exhibited a resistance to conventional treatments, making it all the more necessary to seek out alternative medical regimens.
“This work could guide medical science by pointing researchers in the direction of other molecules that could be used to treat disorders of the brain,” Slot added. But with the slew of strict drug laws hampering the progression of these studies, it may be a long time coming before tangible comes out of these studies. (Related: Medical scientists stunned as “magic mushroom” treatment found to heal mental illness… yet it remains illegal.)
If you’d like to read up on the more studies that cover plant-based remedies, simply go to NaturalMedicine.news today.