How do mushrooms become magic?

Fungi interval

Video: Time-lapse video of narcotic and non-narcotic fungi growing in the lab
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Credit: University of Plymouth

The psychedelic compounds found in “magic mushrooms” are increasingly being recognized for their ability to treat health conditions such as depression, anxiety, compulsive disorders, and addiction.

However, very little is known about how these compounds evolved and what role they play in the natural world.

To address this, scientists from the University of Plymouth are conducting a first-of-its-kind study using advanced genetic methods and behavioral experiments to address previously untested hypotheses about the origin of cannabinoid compounds in fungi.

This includes exploring whether these traits evolved as a form of defense against invertebrates that feed on fungi, or whether fungi produce compounds that manipulate insect behavior for their own benefit.

The project will focus in particular on psilocybin, commonly found in so-called “magic mushrooms”. Chemically speaking, it is very similar to serotonin, which is involved in transmitting information between nerve cells in animals.

Researchers take samples of both narcotic and non-narcotic fungi, and use next-generation DNA sequencing to test whether or not a diverse animal community is feeding on narcotic fungi.

They also use laboratory tests to investigate fungal and insect interactions, and whether the fungi undergo genetic changes during attack and evolution. They will also investigate the effect of psilocybin on the growth of soil bacteria.

The research will also include using advanced gene-editing technology to try to create mutant fungi that cannot manufacture psilocybin. It is hoped that this will help researchers better understand the role of a wide range of fungal compounds in the future.

The study is led by a team of researchers with expertise in molecular ecology, animal-plant interactions, and fungal biology in the university’s School of Biological and Marine Sciences. The study is led by Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr. Kirsty Matthews Nicholas and Research Assistant Ms. Ilona Fleiss.

The study is supervised by Dr. John Ellis, Lecturer in Preservative Genetics. He said: “In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in cannabinoids from a human health perspective. However, almost nothing is known about the evolution of these compounds in nature and the reason why fungi contain neurotransmitter-like compounds has not been resolved.

“The hypotheses that have been proposed for their development have not been formally tested, which is what makes our project so ambitious and novel. In the future it could also lead to exciting future discoveries, as the development of new compounds that can be used as fungicides, insecticides, pharmaceuticals and antibiotics will likely arise from research ‘Blue Sky’ looking for innate defense.

Dr. Kirsty Matthews Nicholas said: “inside Psilocybe Alone, there are approximately 150 hallucinogenic species distributed on all continents except Antarctica. However, the fungal species in which these “magical” compounds occur are not always closely related. This raises intriguing questions regarding the environmental stresses that may act to maintain the psilocybin biosynthesis pathway.”

The research is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and builds on the university’s long experience in the new elements of conservation genetics.

Researchers involved in this project have previously explored Genetic diversity among pollinators in the UKThe Feeding preferences of slugs and snailsAnd the Development of an early warning system for plant diseases.

Dr. John Ellis talks about the history of research into cannabinoids in nature

“Fungi generally receive less attention in general than animals and plants, in part because they are less visible, people interact less with them and can be difficult to study. Historically, there have also been legal barriers that have meant that some research was not possible before. There were some very interesting studies in the 1940s and 1950s about the use of LSD as a psychological treatment for alcoholism and obsessive-compulsive disorder.At that time, people also became interested in fungi from an anthropological perspective.

“One of the spouses, the Wassons, went to Mexico and witnessed the ritual mushrooms being used for the first time in religious ceremonies. The articles they published drew public attention to psychoactive mushrooms. Around this time there were also charismatic individuals, such as Timothy Leary In the 1960s, the drug gained widespread public attention, which eventually led to governments introducing new laws to restrict their use.

“For some time, this also restricted the basic research that could be done. More recently, people have gone back to this initial research and found that compounds like psilocybin can have psychotherapeutic benefits. However, that has not addressed its development in nature, which is What makes the research we do so exciting.

“I hope our project can change the public perception of magic mushrooms. But then, asking questions about the biological world is an essential part of our human nature and this project fits within a long narrative of research that asks questions about biodiversity and its evolution.”


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