Psychedelic mushrooms likely developed their "magical" properties to trip up fungi-munching insects, suggests new research.
The work helps explain a biological mystery and could open scientific doors to studies of novel treatments for neurological disease, said lead researcher Jason Slot, an assistant professor of fungal evolutionary genomics at The Ohio State University.
Mushrooms that contain the brain-altering compound psilocybin vary widely in terms of their biological lineage and, on the surface, don't appear to have a whole lot in common, he said.
From an evolutionary biology perspective, that is intriguing and points to a phenomenon in which genetic material hops from one species to another - a process called horizontal gene transfer, Slot said. When it happens in nature, it's typically in response to stressors or opportunities in the environment.
He and his co-authors examined three species of psychedelic mushrooms - and related fungi that don't cause hallucinations - and found a cluster of five genes that seem to explain what the psychedelic mushrooms have in common.
"But our main question is, 'How did it evolve?'" Slot said. "What is the role of psilocybin in nature?"
Slot and his co-authors found an evolutionary clue to why the mushrooms gained the ability to send human users into a state of altered consciousness. The genes responsible for making psilocybin appear to have been exchanged in an environment with a lot of fungus-eating insects, namely animal manure.
"We speculate that mushrooms evolved to be hallucinogenic because it lowered the chances of the fungi getting eaten by insects," Slot said. The study appears online in the journal Evolution Letters.
- by Misti Crane
Read the entire article here: Ohio State News