Scientists to examine how mushrooms become magic

The study will be undertaken by scientists at the University of Plymouth

17 October 2022

Scientists are using advanced genetic methods and behavioural experiments in a bid to uncover how mushrooms become magic and evolve psychedelic properties.

Compounds found in so-called magic mushrooms are increasingly being recognised for their potential to treat health conditions including depression, anxiety, compulsive disorders and addiction.

However, scientists at the University of Plymouth say little is known about how such compounds have evolved and what role they play in the natural world.

They are using advanced genetic methods and behavioural experiments to address previously untested hypotheses into the origins of psychedelic compounds in fungi.

This includes examining whether such traits have evolved as a form of defence against invertebrates that feed on fungi, or whether the fungi produce compounds that manipulate insect behaviour for their own advantage.

Dr Jon Ellis, lecturer in conservation genetics at the University of Plymouth, said: “In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in psychedelic compounds from a human health perspective.

“However, almost nothing is known about the evolution of these compounds in nature and why fungi should contain neurotransmitter-like compounds is unresolved.

“The hypotheses that have been suggested for their evolution have never been formally tested, and that is what makes our project so ambitious and novel.

“It could also in future lead to exciting future discoveries, as the development of novel compounds that could be used as fungicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and antibiotics is likely to arise from ‘blue-sky’ research investigating fungal defence.”

Dr Ellis added that there had previously been legal barriers to studying psychedelic compounds in nature that meant certain research had not been possible.

In the 1940s and 1950s, research examined the use of LSD as a psychotherapeutic treatment for alcoholism and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Around that time, people became interested in fungi from an anthropological perspective – with Robert Gordon Wasson travelling to Mexico and witnessing the ritual use of it in religious ceremonies in the late 1950s.

“In the 1960s, psychedelic compounds really came to widespread public attention and that ultimately led to governments introducing new laws to restrict their use,” Dr Ellis said.

“For some time, that also restricted the fundamental research that could be carried out.

“More recently, people have returned to that initial research and found that compounds such as psilocybin can have psychotherapeutic benefits.

“However, that has not addressed their evolution in nature, which is what makes the research we are doing so exciting. I hope our project can change the public perception of magic mushrooms.”

The project will particularly focus on psilocybin, commonly found in so-called magic mushrooms and chemically similar to serotonin.

Researchers will examine psychedelic and non-psychedelic fungi and use DNA sequencing to test whether there is a diverse animal community feeding on psychedelic fungi.

They are using laboratory tests to investigate interactions between fungi and insects, and whether the fungi undergo genetic changes during attack and development.

The research will also examine the effect of psilocybin on the growth of soil bacteria.

Dr Kirsty Matthews Nicholass, of the University of Plymouth, said: “Within psilocybe alone, there are close to 150 hallucinogenic species distributed across all continents except Antarctica.

“Yet, the fungal species in which these ‘magic’ compounds occur are not always closely related.

“This raises interesting questions regarding the ecological pressures that may be acting to maintain the biosynthesis pathway for psilocybin.”

The research, which is funded by the Leverhulme Trust, will also involved using gene-editing technology to try to create mutant fungi that cannot synthesise psilocybin.

It is being led by a team of researchers experienced in molecular ecology, animal-plant interactions and fungal biology in the University’s School of Biological and Marine Sciences.

Those involved have previously explored the genetic diversity among pollinators in the UK, the feeding preferences of slugs and snails, and developed an early warning system for plant disease.

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