Earth & Conservation

Here’s How Magic Mushrooms Probably Became Psychedelic

Psychedelic mushrooms likely acquired their hallucinogenic qualities from another fungus around 50 million years ago.

Psychedelic mushrooms | Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Psychedelic mushrooms | Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Insights into the evolution of magic mushrooms could result in breakthroughs in treating depression and other neurological disorders, according to new research.

Writing in the journal Evolution Letters, researchers found that the three types of magic mushrooms they studied likely gained genes to generate psilocybin — the chemical that triggers psychedelic hallucinations in those who eat the mushrooms — from another fungus that also grew in dung or decaying wood around 50 million years ago.

While bacteria commonly experience “horizontal gene transfer” — the scientific term for one species acquiring genes from another — it is rare in higher-level creatures, Jason Slot, a mycologist at Ohio State University and lead researcher on the study. Discovering evidence that it occurred in magic mushrooms is a significant breakthrough, he added.

“This was a major unanswered question in fungal evolution,” Slot told Seeker. “Why do certain mushrooms make this hallucinogenic compound? For mycologists in general, magic mushrooms are a perennial question.”

Slot and his colleagues did not know exactly how the transfer might have occurred, but he opined that primeval magic mushrooms must have eaten a piece of psilocybin-producing DNA, assimilated it into their genomes, and then evolved into the trippy ’shrooms known today.

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In humans, psilocybin is a mind-altering drug that produces euphoria, warps one’s sense of space and time, triggers visual effects by distorting color and light, and can invoke spiritual experiences. It can also trigger fear, confusion, and other negative feelings during so-called “bad trips.”

Because magic mushrooms grow amidst plenty of larvae of fungi-eating insects, Slot and his co-authors believed psilocybin could be a defense mechanism that allowed the mushrooms to survive and evolve over time. Slot stressed they were only floating a hypothesis in this regard, but they noted that studies have demonstrated that psilocybin reduced maggots’ feeding and altered the behavior of spiders.

What’s off-putting to bugs, however, might be good for people with mental illnesses and other neurological problems.  If mind-altering drugs evolved in cow dung and rotten logs, other potent chemicals might be found in them, Slot and his co-authors wondered. Other studies have proven that psilocybin can help alleviate depression, addiction, and anxiety.

“Maybe that kind of environment is a good place to look for other things that interact with nervous systems,” Slot said. “It opens up opportunity for more drug discovery.”

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Researchers have described psilocybin as offering a “reset” to the sufferers of neurological ailments, breaking the brain cycles that torment them and allowing new connections to form after the compound wears off, Slot said.

Currently, however, under US law, psilocybin is classified as an illegal drug.

Slot noted that scientists could learn more about magic mushrooms if it was easier to study them. He and his colleagues made their findings using DNA material and computer simulations. They would need approval from the federal government to grow and test full-blown in order to avoid opening themselves up to charges of drug production, he said.

“We’re always checking with the authorities to find out if what we were doing is acceptable,” said Slot. “We are in this realm of suppressed science.”