Shroom News & Culture

Researchers Studying Origin of Psychedelic Properties in Mushrooms

Researchers at the University of Plymouth are studying the genetic origins of the psychedelic compounds produced by psychedelic mushrooms.

Min read
AJ Herrington
March 26, 2023

For untold generations, human beings have used psychedelic mushrooms in spiritual or medicinal rituals, taking advantage of the mystical fungi’s power to explore unfamiliar realms of the mind and offer insight into the psyche. Today, researchers are investigating the peculiar powers of psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics to harness them as medical treatments for mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, and substance misuse disorders. But until now, little research has been done to determine why some species of mushrooms evolved to produce psychoactive compounds that can have such a profound effect on the human mind and mental wellbeing.

Researchers at the University of Plymouth in England are trying to unravel the mystery of the origins of psychedelic compounds produced by dozens of species of fungi. Dr. Jon Ellis, a lecturer in conservation genetics at the University of Plymouth and a lead researcher on the study, said that in recent years, “there has been a resurgence of interest in psychedelic compounds from a human health perspective.”

Psychedelic Health Benefits are Proven, but Much About the Psychoactive Origins of Mushrooms is Still Unknown.

Studies into psychedelic mushrooms have repeatedly documented the beneficial effects that psilocybin can have on mental health. Research into psilocybin has shown that the psychedelic compound has the potential to treat several serious mental health disorders including major depressive disorder, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders. In August, researchers from New York University and the University of New Mexico published a study finding that psilocybin shows promise as a treatment for alcohol misuse disorder. Other research has shown that psilocybin can also help longtime tobacco users quit smoking.

A different study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine found that psilocybin treatment coupled with psychotherapy could produce rapid and significant improvements in patients with major depressive order. Follow-up research determined that the effects of such psilocybin-assisted therapy on depression could last for up to a year for some patients.

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Exploring The Origins Of Psychedelic Effects

But, Ellis says that despite all the research into the benefits of psilocybin, “almost nothing is known about the evolution of these compounds in nature and why fungi should contain neurotransmitter-like compounds is unresolved.” He also noted that studies of psychedelic compounds as a treatment for alcoholism and obsessive-compulsive disorder in the 1940s and 1950s produced promising results.

“More recently, people have returned to that initial research and found that compounds such as psilocybin can have psychotherapeutic benefits,” Ellis said. “However, that has not addressed their evolution in nature, which is what makes the research we are doing so exciting.”

The University of Plymouth researchers are using advanced genetic techniques to study psilocybin mushrooms and try to decode the mystery behind the origin of their psychedelic effects. The research will investigate potential explanations, including the possibility that the psychedelic compounds are a defense mechanism or that they are produced by fungi in order to manipulate the behavior of insects.

“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,” Ellis said. “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 defense.”

Hundreds of Mushroom Species Produce Psychedelic Effects

The study is being led by a team of researchers experienced in molecular ecology, animal-plant interactions, and fungal biology at the University of Plymouth’s School of Biological and Marine Sciences. The research will focus on so-called magic mushrooms, the fungi that produce psilocybin. Dr. Kirsty Matthews Nicholass, a member of the Plymouth University research team, noted that unraveling the reason the fungi evolved the ability to produce psychedelic compounds is likely to be a complicated process.

“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.”

In addition to psilocybin mushrooms, the research will also examine other species of fungi that do not produce psychedelic compounds. Using advanced next-generation DNA sequencing technology, the researchers will attempt to determine if there is a diverse animal community feeding on psychedelic fungi. The research will also use advanced gene editing technology to attempt to create mutant fungi that do not have the ability to produce psilocybin. It is hoped this will help researchers better understand the role of a wide range of fungal compounds in the future.

Researchers Studying Effects of Funghi on Environment 

They will also examine the effect of psilocybin on the growth of soil bacteria, and use laboratory tests to investigate fungal-insect interactions. Additionally, the research will investigate whether the fungi undergo genetic changes during attack and development. The researchers hope the discoveries they make will help scientists better understand the role of a wide range of fungal compounds. Taken together, the research is likely to produce new discoveries about many kinds of mushrooms, which often get the short end of the stick when it comes to research and funding. 

“Fungi generally receive less attention overall than animals and plants, partly because they are less apparent, people interact with them less and they can be hard to study,” Ellis noted. “Historically, there have also been legal barriers which meant certain research has not previously been possible.”

“I hope our project can change the public perception of magic mushrooms,” he added. “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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About the Author

AJ Herrington

A.J. Herrington is a California-based freelance writer covering psychedelics and cannabis news, business and culture. His work can be found in national publications including Forbes, High Times, Cannabis Now, and more.

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