The Spice Flows
August 27, 2017 9:41 PM   Subscribe

How Mushrooms Became Magic - "Psilocybin affects us humans because it fits into receptor molecules that typically respond to serotonin—a brain-signaling chemical. Those receptors are ancient ones that insects also share, so it's likely that psilocybin interferes with their nervous system, too. 'We don't have a way to know the subjective experience of an insect', says Slot, and it's hard to say if they trip. But one thing is clear from past experiments: Psilocybin reduces insect appetites. By evolving the ability to make this chemical, which prevents the munchies in insects, perhaps some fungi triumphed over their competitors, and dominated the delicious worlds of dung and rotting wood." (via)
And perhaps other species gained the same powers by taking up the genes for those hallucinogens. It’s not clear how they did so. Some scientists think that fungi can occasionally fuse together, giving them a chance to share their DNA, while Slot prefers the idea that in times of stress, fungi can soak up DNA from their environment. Either way, thegenes for psilocybin have spread.
also btw...
Scientists Cook Up Magic Mushrooms' Psychedelic Recipe - "Researchers at Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany sequenced the genomes of two psychedelic mushroom species and used the information to identify four key enzymes involved in the process of creating psilocybin. Knowing how the mushrooms make the compound opens the door to large-scale bioengineering of the chemical that has increasingly been shown to benefit people suffering from depression, alcoholism and other disorders." (via)
posted by kliuless (12 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
At last, some good news!
posted by oheso at 3:09 AM on August 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I need to pick a nit.

I'd like to point out that a species doesn't have to "triumph over its competitors" or "dominate its world" to survive. It just has to have a niche that it can inhabit without being wiped out. Defense against predators helps with that, but "dominating the competition" isn't necessarily involved. Similar species frequently coexist within very similar niches.

This obsession worh competition, dominance, and victory is an aberration in modern Western society that we have a tendency to project onto the natural world. Other creatures are just trying to survive and reproduce; the strategies for doing that are much more complex and diverse than just crushing the competition or whatever. Seeing everything as a competition where one species wins and all the others lose is a very anthropocentric, eurocentric, and I'd argue toxic way of looking at the world.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:34 AM on August 28, 2017 [43 favorites]

I always love this angle; psychoactive compounds in plants and fungi are defence mechanisms. It really puts a damper on the obnoxious, "It's, like, natural my dude!" or, "Man it's mother earth's gift!" Having known many stoners and self-appellated "psychonauts" that irrationally mysticize drugs throughout my young adult life, I've come to revel in the banal and un-magic origins of these substances.
posted by constantinescharity at 9:37 AM on August 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

For Slot, that was a shame. He tried magic mushrooms as a young adult, and credits them with pushing him into science... Ironically, he became a mycologist—an aficionado of fungi.

That is something like the complete inverse of irony. It is a level of anti-irony that must be rigorously measured in Morissette units.
posted by FatherDagon at 10:58 AM on August 28, 2017 [14 favorites]

I'd like to point out that a species doesn't have to "triumph over its competitors" or "dominate its world" to survive.

This is a particularly worthwhile point for a species that does waaay better for itself with reasonable forms of cooperation between individuals.

But when it comes to darwinian arenas, I'm less sure. Your survival space floor starts at sufficiently competitive for resources that you're at least in stasis, anything below that is a shock to survival. So you probably want to be more competitive than that, particularly considering that some sort of shock is likely to make whatever baselines state represents survival periodically untenable. When it comes down to it, why not be much more competitive than that, maybe even dominant? Well, the only ceiling would really be is if you end up having to make tradeoffs that threaten your viability in some other way.

In other words, no, I don't think it's at all fair to say the incentives that drive towards domination are merely an artifact of some undesirable set of Western Society. That doesn't mean we don't have a problem with that metaphor showing up in places where it shouldn't, but it does mean that in a context where survival of a species (or individual or its line) is a question, dominance as a margin against non-survival is a solution that's incentivized.
posted by wildblueyonder at 11:59 AM on August 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I submit that if ecological dominance were a common and successful strategy for survival, there would be way less biodiversity than there is. Witness the effects of one species' unprecedented dominance over the biosphere, and the direction that biodiversity is moving in as a direct result of that.

Also, it's a fallacy to say that a species is trying to do anything, evolutionarily speaking. Species aren't trying to do anything. Individuals are trying to survive and reproduce, using whatever adaptations they have. If a new adaptation (such as expression of a secondary metabolite like psilocybin) makes an individual more likely to survive and/or reproduce, then it will (all else being equal) tend to become more common in the population, purely as a consequence of that success, regardless of whether or not it has a negative effect on competitors.

It's not really a competition, in the sense that individuals or species are motivated to outdo other species. Everyone is just trying to get by.

Also, biodiversity is not a zero-sum game. The success of one species does not require the demise of another. If that were true, then the number of species on the planet would tend to remain stable or decrease over time. Instead, the evolutionary record clearly shows that (absent the occasional calamity) biodiversity tends to increase, as species develop ways to exploit new niches and better coexist within their environmental milieus. Some species do naturally become extinct, but typically more new ones arise than old ones die out.

There certainly can be a competitive element to all this, but it's hardly some kind of universal rule, and ascribing competitiveness as a motivator for something like a fungus is kind of absurd. If you're less likely to get eaten, that in itself is a huge benefit regardless of whether or not it lets you trample on those who might be competing with you for resources.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:56 PM on August 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm thinking it would be very interesting to ponder the subject of this article while under the influence of psilocybin.
posted by AJScease at 2:35 PM on August 28, 2017

How did they manage to synthesize it using only 3 of the 4 (or 5?) enzymes that the fungi need? (I'm sure the answer is in the journal article, but I don't have access.) Could a fungi do it with only 3 enzymes?
posted by clawsoon at 9:36 PM on August 28, 2017

> large-scale bioengineering of the [psychedelic] chemical
Famous last words...
posted by runcifex at 4:49 AM on August 29, 2017

Gene-level evolution is a pretty interesting perspective on this, too, given that horizontal gene transfer of some kind was responsible for the gene's cross-species spread. Many of the conclusions we make about how evolution is supposed to work are based on models that assume transfer by descent.

You could call this a "helpful gene", one that ensures its own survival by spreading to as many species as possible and giving them a boost. In exchange, it's protected and promoted. It reminds me, at another level of life, of intestinal bacteria that colonize many different species of animal and help them break down things like cellulose.

I'd love to read a good, broad-ranging analysis of the evolutionary implications of this kind of horizontal gene transfer. It's not the kind that's usually studied - where a gene encodes the ability to spread itself - but I still think it's interesting.
posted by clawsoon at 6:49 AM on August 29, 2017

> How did they manage to synthesize it using only 3 of the 4...

Not certain for this specific case, but when doing biosynthetic fermentation, its very common to feed the system with synthetic precursors. The single/few enyzmes used in the reaction completes the final steps.

Lots of different small molecules share common precursor molecules. For example, there are a lot of different steroids, but they mostly/all are derived from cholesterol as a common precursor.
posted by porpoise at 4:45 PM on August 29, 2017

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