Psychedelic mushrooms have become famous for their hallucinogenic side-effects, and even show promise in treating depression. However, new research suggests that the compound which makes these mushrooms so “magical” might have been developed as a way to protect themselves from fungus-eating insects.
The hallucinogenic compound known as psilocybin is present in over 200 mushroom species, however, that’s the only thing these sprouts have in common.
Thus, researchers decided to analyze several types of mushrooms, both hallucinogenic and not, to figure out if their genetic makeup can explain psilocybin’s presence.
According to the study, published in the Evolution Letters journal, the genes responsible for psilocybin may have been created to trick fungus-eating insects into feeling less hungry, thus preventing them from consuming more mushrooms.
To reach this conclusion, researchers from Ohio State University compared three species of psychedelic mushrooms containing psilocybin with three related mushrooms that didn’t have the compound.
The researchers speculate that a number of mushrooms species managed to produce psilocybin thanks to a process known as horizontal gene transfer, as a response to stress or environmental opportunities. They were able to identify five genes that link the psychedelic mushrooms to each other.
The main goal of the study, however, was to find out psilocybin’s role in nature and how it evolved.
According to the study, the genes that allow mushrooms to produce psilocybin may have been exchanged in an environment dominated by fungus-eating insects, with a main mode of transfer being animal manure.
Insects were found to respond much in the same way to the hallucinogenic compound as humans do.
“The psilocybin probably doesn’t just poison predators or taste bad. These mushrooms are altering the insects’ mind… to meet their own needs,” said Jason Slot, lead researcher of the study.
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