Study To Examine Why Shrooms Evolved with Psychedelic Properties

Did psychedelic properties in magic mushrooms evolve to repel predators or to manipulate their minds? The University of Plymouth hopes to find out.

Researchers associated with the University of Plymouth will launch a first-of-its-kind study to address previously untested hypotheses into the origin of psychedelic compounds in fungi—focusing primarily on psilocybin.

According to an Oct 17 press release, researchers will attempt to determine whether psychedelic properties evolved as a predator defense system or to manipulate the minds of predators. Whatever the case, most researchers agree that the psilocybin itself lowers the chance of the mushrooms being consumed by predators. The research is being funded by the Leverhulme Trust as the university continues to explore novel elements of conservation genetics.

The current explanation for the development of psychedelic compounds like psilocybin is some sort of defense mechanism for predators. Some types of beetles, flies, and other invertebrates normally have an insatiable appetite for mushrooms. Psilocybin causes hallucinations in humans, but some existing research suggests psilocybin could be tricking insects into losing their appetite—a truly unique protective mechanism. Other times, strange or parasitic defense mechanisms have been observed in fungi, but little is known about how those properties evolved.

“In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in psychedelic compounds from a human health perspective,” said Dr. Jon Ellis, lecturer in Conservation Genetics and lead researcher. “However, almost nothing is known about the evolution of these compounds in nature and why fungi should contain neurotransmitter-like compounds is unresolved.”

Ellis continued, “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 … 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.”

Other psychedelic mushroom species like amanitas work in very different ways.

Dr. Kirsty Matthews Nicholass explained how different types of psychedelic mushrooms behave in very different ways. “Within Psilocybe alone, there are close to 150 hallucinogenic species distributed across all continents except Antarctica,” said Nicholass. “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 same team of researchers previously studied the genetic diversity among U.K. pollinators, the feeding preferences of slugs and snails, and developed an early warning system for plant disease.

Another theory is that psilocybin somehow manipulates that mind of invertebrate predators—as seen in other species of fungi.

A truly disgusting new discovery includes Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, aka “zombie-ant fungus” a parasitic fungus that grows and fills an ant’s body, and manipulates its mind into perching at a place precisely 25 centimeters from the ground, which is ideal for the fungus to grow and reproduce. Similar to the movie Alien, a stalk of fungus rips out atop the ant’s head and releases a capsule of spores in order to reproduce as a parasite.

Like the zombie-ant fungus, psilocybin might be doing things to predators to manipulate their mind as well. It’s likely that psilocybin affects predators much differently than humans.

Ellis continued to expound on how psychedelic research in the past has been hampered by barriers—that is, until the resurgence of psychedelic medicine in recent years.

“I hope our project can change the public perception of magic mushrooms,” he said. “But beyond that, asking questions about the biological world is a fundamental part of our human nature and this project fits into a long narrative of research asking questions about biodiversity and its evolution.”

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