We’re seeing a psychedelic renaissance today, especially when it comes to the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms, psilocybin, and its potential applications in mental health treatments.

Many are well aware that this substance, along with other psychedelics, first saw modern popularity in the West back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. While magic mushrooms were utilized by a number of cultures throughout history, a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that their history may date back even further than we previously expected, to prehistoric times.

Researchers from the University of Utah and the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU) decided to take a closer look at the history of psilocybin mushrooms and their evolution over time, finding that mushrooms producing the psychedelic compound have been around for roughly 65 million years, or just around when dinosaurs became extinct.

Uncovering the History of Psilocybin Mushroom Evolution

Researchers note that the evolutionary history of this genus is “substantially incomplete.” This study is the largest genomic diversity study for the Psilocybe genus, or mushrooms that produce psilocybin. The analysis included 52 Psilocybe specimens, with 39 species that had previously never been sequenced.

The analysis found two distinct gene orders with the cluster that produces psilocybin. These patterns corresponded to an ancient split in the genus around 57 million years ago, which researchers said points toward two independent acquisitions of psilocybin in its evolutionary history. 

It’s also the first study to show this strong evolutionary pattern through gene sequences resulting in psychoactive protein synthesis.

NHMU curator of mycology and senior author of the study Bryn Dentinger pointed toward the potential future of psilocybin medicine in reference to the discoveries, noting that there will be a need to develop these therapeutics to improve efficacy over time. He implies that these processes could be further streamlined as we learn more about how psilocybin has gradually evolved in nature.

“There’s a wealth of diversity of these compounds out there,” Dentinger said. “To understand where they are and how they’re made, we need to do this kind of molecular work to use biodiversity to our advantage.”

Paving a New Path for Psilocybin Research and Innovation

University of Utah postdoctoral researcher and fellow study author Alexander Bradshaw said that the specimens used in the study represent “hundreds of years of thousands of scientists’ collective efforts” to document genus diversity.

“That’s the beauty of it—no one has really sequenced type specimens at this scale, and now we get to produce molecular and genomic data to the gold standard of Psilocybe types for people to compare against,” Bradshaw said.

Twenty-three of the 52 specimens were “type specimens,” which helps to designate a species in which all other samples are measured. While 17 specimens displayed the original order, 35 exhibited the new pattern. 

“We’ve shown here that there’s been a lot of change in gene order over time, and that provides some new tools for biotechnology,” Dentinger said. “If you’re looking for a way to express the genes to produce psilocybin and related compounds, you no longer have to rely on only one set of gene sequences to do that. Now there’s tremendous diversity that scientists can look at for lots of different properties or efficiencies.”

Understanding the Evolutionary Introduction of Psilocybin

Part of the hope behind uncovering the full story of psilocybin mushrooms and their evolutionary history is uncovering what specific benefit psilocybin has for mushrooms. 

Some have theorized it may be a defense mechanism to deter predators, through their psychoactive effects or effects on digestion. Though, psilocybin mushrooms tend to be fairly uncommon in the wild, so many question the validity of this theory. Others have suggested that psilocybin is a defense against insects, though these ideas have yet to be proven.

The study authors are looking to dive further into this question as well, moving forward to test a theory called the Gastropod Hypothesis, which would coincide with this newly discovered timeline surrounding psilocybin mushrooms.

Following the asteroid event that eliminated the dinosaurs and threw Earth into an ice age, fungi and terrestrial gastropods were two of the primary thriving lifeforms. Terrestrial slugs specifically are predators of mushrooms, so the theory suggests that psilocybin evolved as a slug deterrent.

“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of collections for doing studies like this,” Bradshaw said. “We are standing on the shoulders of giants, who spent thousands of people-power hours to create these collections, so that I can write an email and request access to rare specimens, many of which have only ever been collected once, and may never be collected again.”

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