Scientists from the University of Plymouth are conducting a first-of-its-kind study using advanced genetic methods and behavioural experiments to address previously untested hypotheses into the origin of psychedelic compounds in fungi.
The project will particularly focus on psilocybin, commonly found in so-called ‘magic mushrooms’. In chemical terms, it is very similar to serotonin, which is involved in the sending of information between nerve cells in animals.
Dr Jon Ellis, Lecturer in Conservation Genetics, explained:
“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.”
The researchers are sampling psychedelic and non-psychedelic fungi, and using next-generation DNA sequencing to test whether or not there is a diverse animal community feeding on psychedelic fungi.
They are also using laboratory tests to investigate fungal-insect interactions, and whether the fungi undergo genetic changes during attack and development. They will also investigate the effect of psilocybin on the growth of soil bacteria.
The research involves using cutting-edge gene editing technology to try and create mutant fungi that cannot synthesize psilocybin. It is hoped this will help researchers better understand the role of a wide range of fungal compounds in future.
The study is being led by a team of experienced researchers in molecular ecology, animal-plant interactions and fungal biology in the University’s School of Biological and Marine Sciences. Driving the study are Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr Kirsty Matthews Nicholass and Research Assistant Ms Ilona Flis.
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.”
The research is being funded by the Leverhulme Trust and builds on the University’s long-running expertise in novel elements of conservation genetics.
Researchers involved in this project have previously explored the genetic diversity among UK pollinators, the feeding preferences of slugs and snails, and developed an early warning system for plant disease.