All through history, we humans have had an amazing desire to mess with chemistry of our brains. We spend lots of our time drinking the waste of sucrose-eating bacteria, smoking leaves from garden-variety weeds, and eating mushrooms because they have chemicals to provide experiences that are bizarre enough to call it magic. And the thing is that we humans have been doing this kind of thing for literally thousands of years. In fact, we have seen prehistoric cave paintings that suggest mushrooms were very much enjoyed by our ancestors.
However, the fact that these magic mushrooms even exist and that they contain psilocybin which gives us such an amazingly powerful experience is really kind of odd. When you consider all of life on Earth, and you see that pretty much every species has its own purpose. But you have to wonder why these mushrooms produce a drug that makes humans hallucinate – and what is the reason for their existence.
What makes psilocybin so bizarre?
As a matter of fact, there is new research in Evolution Letters that has actually found evidence regarding the purpose of psilocybin in fungi. It is there for insects. Specifically, the insects don’t particularly mind eating a fungi’s mushroom or even on what the fungi likes to eat—wood and dung.
A big reason why it is hard to figure out the purpose of a mushroom’s psilocybin is because psilocybin-creating mushrooms are generally not related to each other. It seems that there is no common ancestor that had perfected the ability to create psilocybin and gave it to its offspring. Instead, there are five unique, vaguely related types of fungi that make psilocybin.
Psilocybin is actually a secondary metabolite, which means it is basically an organic compound that does not take part in the development, growth, or the reproduction of those fungi. Generally speaking, it is very expensive to make these secondary metabolites, and psilocybin is a very complicated molecule to make in its own right. Thus, it is very strange how it just showed up in various species of fungi.
What put the magic in magic mushrooms?
It is very unlikely that the production of psilocybin evolved in certain species of mushrooms spontaneously. And since the species are not related, it is obvious that the passing down of genes from parent to child was not responsible either. Therefore, researchers concluded that horizontal gene transfer had to be the culprit.
We humans generally consider evolution to be a series of gradual, random changes in a gene that will accidentally enhance the fitness of a species within its environment – and these enhancements then get passed down to their offspring. However, genetic material can be passed as well between distinct, yet co-existing species.
Environment over ancestry
This horizontal gene transfer activity seems to be the way that magic mushrooms acquired their magic. The fascinating part about all this is the way a fungi’s own environment affects their evolution. Fungi have to compete with surrounding insects for wood and dung and are often eaten by the insects themselves. There is no doubt that creating psilocybin is an effective way to mess up the brains of any insect that chooses to partake. Since psilocybin production is so helpful to those fungi that consume dung and wood, whenever genes that promote psilocybin production are placed inside their genome, they usually thrive and always outproduce fungi that do not produce psilocybin.
Recently, psilocybin has gained notoriety for having the ability to treat PTSD, depression, along with other mental disorders, which is awesome for a chemical that began as an insecticide. However, most of these recreational chemicals that humans use were made by fungi and plants to repel insects that would otherwise eat their food or eat them. Because of this research, we have yet another way to discover what types of fungi and plants are holding secret chemicals that could greatly improve our lives.