Magic mushrooms, also called shrooms or mushrooms, are a type of mushroom containing psilocybin or psilocin. These drugs are inducing hallucinations. Psilocybin powder can also come in the form of a capsule.
Some mushrooms that look like psilocybin mushrooms are toxic. If you eat a poisonous magic mushroom, you can hurt your liver or even die.
It violates the law to produce, sell, or carry magic mushrooms. If you get arrested, you may have to give a fine or even go to prison.
How Mushrooms Became Magic mushrooms
Did a powerful hallucinogen develop to stop insects from getting munchies?
If you were an American scientist interested in hallucinogens, it was a wonderful time to work in the 1950s and 1960s. Drugs such as LSD and psilocybin were legal and easily acquired by researchers. Scientists did more than a hundred experiments with government funds. They aimed to see how these chemicals could treat psychiatric disorders.
That day ended in 1970 when Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Drugs Act. It restricted the use, sale and transport of psychedelics—and stifled research into them. “There was an expectation that if you were found to be a psychedelic researcher, you could potentially derail your career,” says Jason Slot of Ohio State University.
That was a shame for Slot. As a young adult, he tried magic mushrooms and credited them for pushing him to science. It helped me to think more fluidly, with fewer expectations or restrictions,” he says. ” And I have gained a greater understanding of natural patterns.” That ability motivated him to return to graduate school. And he studied evolution after drifting through various post-college jobs. “They’re not for everybody. They involve risks. They’re prohibited by law in certain nations. And I would only recommend controlled use by informed adults,” he said.
Why, for example, do mushrooms make a hallucinogen? It’s not for our benefit: these mushrooms have been around for a long time before humans existed. So why did the ability to make psilocybin arise in the first place?
And why do certain distantly related fungi make psilocybin? Approximately 200 species do so, but they are not within the same family fungal tree section. Instead, they’re dispersed around it, and everyone has close relatives that aren’t hallucinogenic. Slot says, “You’ve got some brown mushrooms, some white mushrooms… You also have a lichen. So you’re speaking of divergence of tens of millions of years in these groups.”
These mushrooms have likely evolved the ability to make psilocybin independently. It may be that all the mushrooms have done so once. And most of them have lost the skill. But Slot thought that neither explanation was likely. Instead, he believed that the genes used to make psilocybin had jumped between different species.
These kinds of horizontal gene transfers, where genes shorten the usual passage from parent to offspring and instead travel directly between individuals, are rare in animals. But it is common among bacteria. They’re going to happen in fungi, too. In the last decade, Slot has found various cases where different fungi have exchanged gene clusters. This caused recipients to produce toxins and assimilate nutrients. Could a similar mobile cluster offer the ability to create psilocybin?
To find out, the Slot team first had to identify the genes responsible for producing the drug. His postdoc Hannah Reynolds looked for genes present in various hallucinogenic mushrooms. But not in their nearest non-trippy relatives. A cluster of five genes fits the bill. And it appears to produce all the enzymes needed to make psilocybin from its chemical predecessors.
Slot’s team mapped the presence of these five genes in the fungal family tree. Then they reported that they were more likely to spread by jumping around as a unit. That’s why they’re in the same order compared to each other across the different hallucinogenic mushrooms.
These genes seem to have originated in fungi specialized in decaying wood or animal dung. Both products are rich in hungry insects that compete with fungi. These insects either consume them directly or use the same nutrients. So maybe, Slot suggests, the first fungi evolved psilocybin to drug these rivals.
His theory makes sense. Psilocybin affects us because it fits into receptor molecules that usually react to serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical that signals the brain. These receptors are ancient receptors that insects share. So psilocybin may often interfere with their nervous system. Slot says, “We have no means of understanding an insect’s subjective perspective”. “And it’s difficult to know whether they’re on a trip,” he continued.. Yet one thing is obvious from past experiments: psilocybin reduces insect appetite.
By having the ability to make this chemical that prevents munchies in insects, some of the fungi may have triumphed over their competitors and conquered the delicious worlds of dung and rotting wood. And perhaps other species have acquired the same powers by taking genes for these hallucinogens. It’s not clear how they did it. Some scientists believe that fungi can occasionally combine. This gives them a chance to exchange their DNA. But, Slot prefers the idea that fungi can soak up DNA from their surroundings in times of stress. In either way, the genes for psilocybin have spread.
Most of that is speculation based on circumstantial evidence. Since psilocybin is still a controlled substance, Slot cannot legally make it in his lab. This means that he cannot prove that the gene cluster he identified produces psilocybin in mushrooms. Still, his team has done as much as they can, says Jennifer Wisecaver. She is an evolutionary biologist at Purdue University who studies fungal genes. ” Because of the other facts they give, I would say the theory is credible,” she says.
This work is part of the re-emergence of psilocybin research. Dirk Hoffmeister’s German team found four enzymes capable of producing the drug. This paved the way to create it without increasing shrooms. Other scientists have shown that psilocybin may:
- Potentially treat depression
- Help smokers stop
- And relieve the anxiety felt by cancer patients
“The science of [magic mushrooms] has gained more credibility,” says Slot.
The Bottom Line
If you use magic mushrooms daily, you can become mentally dependent on how mushrooms make you feel.
Drug users also have serious personal problems. Using drugs or getting high could be more important than your family and friends. You can continue to use drugs even though you’re doing a poor job at work or school. This can give rise to money, spiritual, and legal problems. You might lose people who are important to you, lose your job, or get kicked out of school.