Scientists Uncover Evolutionary Past of Hallucinogenic 'Magic' Mushrooms

First Posted: Aug 06, 2013 12:53 PM EDT

Hallucinogenic "magic" mushrooms are well known for their ability to affect those who eat them.  Yet researchers have long wondered exactly where these mushrooms fit in the fungal family tree. Now, scientists have uncovered the evolutionary past of this fungi, revealing a bit more about them and their potential use in medicinal applications.

Hallucinogenic mushrooms have been used for centuries in rituals, medicinally or just recreationally. In fact, ancient people in Central America used to actively ingest these mushrooms for the extrasensory perceptual effects it gave them in order to better assess the problems faced by their societies. That said, scientists officially discovered them in the 19th century. At that point, researchers delved into the mushrooms' taxonomy, biochemistry and historical usage. Now, scientists are learning a bit more about how they evolved.

In order to examine the mushrooms a bit more closely, the researchers employed new molecular and computational techniques. They produced the first multi-gene evaluation of the evolutionary development of Psilocybe, the genus of small mushrooms known for their hallucinogenic properties. This work is a major step when it comes to classifying and naming "magic" mushrooms.

So what did the scientists find? In the past, researchers found that the species of Psilocybe did not commonly descend from a single ancestor. Because of this, the hallucinogenic species were typically separated from their non-hallucinogenic relatives. This new study, though, places the two separate groups into different families: the Psilocybe (family Hymenogastraceae) and the Deconica (family Strophariaceae s.str).

It's likely that the mushrooms evolved independently instead of possessing a common ancestor. Another option is that they underwent several evolutionary losses, probably for ecological reasons. That said, the species of Psilocybe are united to some degree due to the fact that they possess the psychedelic compound psilocybin and other secondary metabolites, or products of metabolism.

The findings reveal a little bit more about how these mushrooms evolved and could tell scientists a little bit more about their properties. The work is important for understanding more about these mushrooms, which could aid current research concerning their medicinal uses.

The findings are published in the journal Botany.

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