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Research reveals how mushrooms become “magic mushrooms”

It is becoming more widely acknowledged that the psychedelic substances present in “magic mushrooms” have the ability to treat diseases like addiction, obsessive disorder, anxiety, and depression.

However, little is understood about these substances’ evolution and function in the natural world. To address this, researchers from the University of Plymouth are carrying out a ground-breaking investigation utilising cutting-edge genetic techniques and behavioural studies to address unproven claims regarding the origin of psychedelic chemicals in fungi.

This includes determining whether such qualities originated as a line of defence against invertebrates that feed on mushrooms or whether the fungi themselves create substances that control insect behaviour for their own advantages.

The initiative will pay close attention to psilocybin, a substance frequently found in ‘magic mushrooms’. It is highly similar to serotonin chemically, which plays a role in the communication of information between nerve cells in animals.

To determine whether there is a varied animal community feeding on psychedelic mushrooms, the researchers are sampling psychedelic and non-psychedelic fungi and utilising next-generation DNA sequencing.

Additionally, they are performing laboratory procedures to look into whether the fungi experience genetic changes throughout development and attack. They will also look into how psilocybin affects the growth of soil microbes.
Modern gene editing techniques will also be used in the study to attempt to produce mutant fungi that are incapable of synthesising psilocybin. In the future, it is believed that this will aid researchers in understanding the function of a variety of fungal substances.

Molecular Ecology, animal-plant interactions, and fungal biology experts from the university’s School of Biological and Marine Sciences are leading the project. Dr Kirsty Matthews Nicholass, a postdoctoral research fellow, and Ms Ilona Flis, a research assistant, are leading the project.

Dr Jon Ellis, Lecturer in Conservation Genetics, is supervising the study. He 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 Kirsty Matthews Nicholass 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.” (ANI)