Mapping magic mushrooms

Researchers track the evolution of psilocybe in massive study

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Alex Bradshaw has been on a mission to map the genomic diversity of psilocybe for years. He’s been determined to find out when these peculiar mushrooms started producing psilocybin — and by extension, someday, maybe, to find out why.

Recent research Bradshaw authored may have laid the groundwork to do that. The study, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), represents the largest genomic diversity study for the genus psilocybe ever. Conducted through the University of Utah and the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU) the research provides a genetic representation for the genus, what Bradshaw calls a “backbone for future studies.” 

Bradshaw is already working on publishing an even larger expanded data set from this project. “We will continue to fill those gaps,” he says.

As a graduate student at the University of Utah, Bradshaw became fixated on collecting as many genetic representations of psilocybe as possible to map the genus’ evolutionary history. He was primarily interested in diversity-based studies at first, and something called “biosynthetic gene clusters” or clusters of genes required to produce something — like psilocybin. 

Bradshaw quickly realized how hard it is to acquire psilocybe mushrooms for research, in part because of their federally illegal status, but also because samples of obscure species of psilocybe are often extremely rare and hard to come by. And there are a lot of them. 

Psilocybe is actually globally distributed, and it’s got roughly about 165 species. But something like 30 to 40 percent of them have actually only ever been found once,” he says. “They’re actually quite rare. Outside a couple of species, they’re actually not very commonly found and collected.”

It was a hurdle in his goal of mapping the genus. But through his position as a graduate researcher at NHMU and something called voucher experiments, Bradshaw found he could access a global bank of museum samples that stretched back decades. 

“We take museum collections, things that have been kind of stored for 20, 30, 40, even sometimes up to 150 years, and we’ve been putting forth a lot of different methods to extract DNA from them and build genomic DNA from those specimens,” Bradshaw says. 

He calls it a “treasure trove of biodiversity.” 

So Bradshaw started building a database. He logged what specimens were available and from what museums, how old they were and what he needed to do to get ahold of them. He even included things like where each specimen grew, whether they decayed wood or were found on dung, and so on. Once all of that data was in place and the backbone for their research was built, the lab got to work. 

“I kind of just got [other museums] to send me as much as they possibly could,” he says. “And then we started developing a method to actually get good quality genomic DNA from these specimens.”

The researchers took what’s called a “phylogenomic approach,” using the whole genome sequence to look at evolutionary diversity. In total, his team analyzed 52 psilocybe specimens including 39 species that have never been sequenced before. Their findings shed a lot of light on this largely unresearched genus of fungi. 

Bradshaw and his team found that psilocybe mushrooms first appeared on Earth some 67 million years ago, making them older than previously thought. They also identified up to five possible horizontal gene transfers to other mushrooms between 9 and 40 million years ago. 

His favorite finding, though, has to do with psilocybe mushrooms’ ability to produce the psychoactive and psychedelic compound psilocybin. This study revealed two separate gene clusters that produce psilocybin with two totally separate evolutionary histories. 

“That’s really interesting because it suggests that psilocybin production in magic mushrooms has actually found a way to make it into that genus at least twice, rather than just once,” Bradshaw says. 

Bradshaw believes this work will be useful for future research on the psilocybe genus. On one hand, the database on psilocybe he’s built is a tool to provide predictive power for future researchers. On the other, he believes both academia and society at large have a lot to gain from a better understanding of the genetic history of psilocybe.

“Research into psilocybe has not really been taken seriously very much, both at a public level and even within a scientific and academic level,” he says. “I think that there’s a lot of legitimacy for this work, and I think that it has the ability to produce research that could be really helpful for things like the mental health crisis.”

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