Fungi is one of the oldest organisms in existence, having been around for about a billion years with hundreds of known species. The first evidence of the existence of psilocybin mushrooms arguably dates back to around 10,000BC. It is thought that the shapes depicted in rock paintings made by North African Indigenous cultures represent mushrooms.
There are now thought to be around 200 different species in existence. There is no arguable suggestion that psilocybin mushrooms were designed by nature to be ingested by humans. What has been less clear is why psilocybin exists in nature at all.
Let’s take a further look…
What Is The Purpose Of Psilocybin In Mushrooms?
Psilocybin is a psychotropic substance. This means that it has mind-altering, hallucinogenic effects when ingested. It changes the way human brains think about things.
Why would fungi need, or want, to produce psilocybin?
Research suggests that it is in fact a form of protection. When you think of it this way, it makes perfect sense. Animals, plants, and insects have all evolved to recognize dangers and to adapt their bodies in a way that affords them protection from both predators and their environment. Some examples of this in practice are…
- The porcupine has evolved to have long quills that can detach and embed themselves in a predator
- Snakes can inject venom into predators and prey which is often debilitating and/or fatal
- Cheetahs can run at incredible speeds, both towards prey and away from predators
Psilocybin in mushrooms appears to be the fungi’s own form of defense mechanism against predators and the way it protects its environment.
What Effect Does Psilocybin Have On Animals?
The effect of Psilocybin on insects and animals is completely different than the one it has on humans. The idea, however, is pretty much the same.
Psilocybin in mushrooms interferes with the neurotransmitters of the brain.
Humans have taken these “magic mushrooms” purposely for generations in order to bring on a hallucinogenic state that they enjoy experiencing. Research suggests that psilocybin mushrooms has evolved to contain the substance in order to try and avoid being eaten by insects. When insects take a bite of the mushroom, the psilocybin alters their “thoughts” and makes them feel like they are no longer hungry. Basically…they lose their appetite.
The benefit to the mushroom? If insects are no longer hungry, they are not going to want to eat you!
The mushrooms also use psilocybin to protect the insect from eating the wood, mulch, or dung on which they grow. Insects are pretty partial to eating the above themselves. If the insects were to eat it all, there would be nowhere left for the mushrooms to grow. Sorting this problem means the environment of the mushrooms is also protected.
How Did Mushrooms Develop To Contain Psilocybin?
This is an interesting topic. It has been incredibly difficult for researchers to understand how and why some mushrooms contain psilocybin. The reason for the difficulty is that there not all mushrooms contain this substance. As a result, pin-pointing the “starting-point” i.e. the very first mushroom to ever contain psilocybin has been really challenging to do.
There is no definitive ancestry that would explain mushrooms producing psilocybin.
What is incredibly interesting is that it is not something that mushrooms need to have to grow. This is evident by the fact that not all species contain it. Researchers have tried to put together an evolutionary line to show that psilocybin was passed down from one generation to another (i.e. as would a mother pass something down to her child).
There is no evidence to suggest this is the case.
Instead, there are five identified, distinct different species of mushroom that all contain psilocybin. As a result, researchers are putting this down to something called horizontal gene transfer.
What Is Horizontal Gene Transfer in Psilocybin Mushrooms?
The simplest explanation is this. The process of horizontal gene transfer is where genetic material appears to hop from one species to another. Think of it like this… Imagine there is a log, on which 5 different species of mushroom are all growing. One of these species realizes that, when they product psilocybin, the insects no longer try and eat them or their log. This mushroom recognizes the importance of this and sees an opportunity. It decides to pass this “information” i.e. the gene along to the other species that share the log. This process, the horizontal gene transfer, helps each of these species of mushroom to ward off pesky insects. This may be a simplification…but it generally explains the purpose and process of horizontal gene transfer.
Other Plants That Have Developed Ways To Survive
The more we think about how other species have adapted for survival, makes it seem much clearer why the mushroom would also adapt in this way. Plants are a perfect example of this. Take peppers for example… Peppers developed a chemical called capsaicin. This chemical is fine for birds to eat but not mammals. Mammals have capsaicin receptors. This means that the taste of peppers is unappealing as they are too spicy. Birds do not have this same receptor so are unperturbed. This is great news for peppers because, when the seeds of the pepper are excreted by birds, they come out fertilized. This is not the case when they are eaten by mammals. Another obvious example might by the Venus fly trap. This has adapted in such a way that when any insects come too close…it eats them!
Psilocybin In Nature: A Conclusion
The way that certain mushrooms have evolved to recognize psilocybin as a means of protection is fascinating. The discovery of its effects on insects is something that is relatively new. It is therefore likely that further information will come to light as the research develops on how this substance effects insect neurotransmitters.
Nature has always found a way to adapt to the stressors and opportunities of the environment. No doubt it will continue to do so…