Many of you are aware, possibly as a result of personal experience, that hallucinogenic mushrooms, or magic mushrooms, can alter human behavior when ingested. Of course, studies have already shown that various mammals become intoxicated upon ingesting the mushrooms, but very little is known about how these hallucinogenic mushrooms affect insects and other arthropods. However, back in 1962 the active hallucinogenic chemical within magic mushrooms was administered to a particular type of web-building spider. Not much was learned from this experiment, except that the active chemical, psilocybin, seems to make the spiders weave strange and incomplete webs. Now, after sixty-five years, researchers are revisiting the idea of using magic mushrooms to influence insect behavior.
Jason Slot of Ohio State University has examined the genetic makeup of three different mind-altering mushrooms, then he compared its genetics with the genetics of three different non-hallucinogenic mushrooms. This analysis allowed Slot to identify a cluster of genes that produced psilocybin. Surprisingly, this gene cluster was found in other distantly related types of mushrooms as well. This phenomena is referred to as “horizontal gene transfer”, and it normally occurs when a particular set of genes are found in different organisms, but not as a result of parent-to-offspring gene transfer.
Slot knows that a variety of fungi grow in areas that are rich with insect-eating fungi. So maybe the psilocybin genes exist in order to protect themselves from fungi-eating insects. Also, the psilocybin genes may effectively repel fungi-eating insects in order to eliminate a competitor from a shared source of food. Or, the psilocybin could be influencing the behavior of insects for reasons not yet considered.
This would not be the first time that certain types of fungi have been observed influencing insect behavior. One example is the “Zombie ant fungus”, which influences an ant’s actions before eventually killing it. Also, like humans, an insect’s nervous system is equipped with the receptors necessary to absorb the hallucinogenic chemical found in magic mushrooms, but insects probably don’t think it’s a fun experience. In any case, it is likely that this gene, which is common to many types of fungi, make use of psilocybin in order to ward-off fungi-eating bugs.
Do you think that we will be seeing bug sprays made from psilocybin in stores in the future?