Magic Mushrooms Became Hallucinogenic to Prevent Being Eaten

Magic Mushrooms_2_28_2017
Magic mushrooms evolved into having psychedelic properties as a way to ward off danger, one biologist theorizes. Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

New research suggests that the trippy effects we seek from magic mushrooms—increased focus, creativity and feelings of tranquility—are actually meant to ward us off.

Psilocybin is the compound responsible for the hallucinogenic effects in more than 100 strains of fungi. Researchers from Ohio State University were stumped as to why the compound was found in so many varieties of mushrooms that were dissimilar biologically.

Biologist Jason Slot of Ohio State believed psychedelic mushrooms became trippy through horizontal gene transfer, a process that occurs when DNA from one species spreads to another. Although Slot noted this usually happens in response to stress, he didn't have an explanation for why mushrooms would go through this process.

"But our main question is, 'How did it evolve?'" Slot said in a statement. "What is the role of psilocybin in nature?"

So the team at Ohio State compared three types of shrooms containing psilocybin with those that did not. They discovered that all three species of magic mushrooms shared five genes. Scientists also discovered another commonality: the mind-altering fungi grew in animal droppings and rotting wood. These environments are full of insects, which nosh on fungus, and led Slot to theorize that shrooms swapped genetic material as a defense mechanism.

"The psilocybin probably doesn't just poison predators or taste bad. These mushrooms are altering the insects' 'mind'—if they have minds—to meet their own needs," he said.

It's important to point out that this is just a theory based on Slot's research and was not proved. He said he hopes that this new discovery could help medical researchers looking for treatments to help with brain disorders.

Research to legitimize magic mushrooms is not new. In October 2017, a study published in Scientific Reports suggested psychedelics eased depressive symptoms by physically changing the area of the brain associated with controlling emotions. Entrepreneur Peter Thiel is banking on the future of medicinal shrooms and has invested in a company that will conduct research on depression and psilocybin, Business Insider reported. But for now, it's safe to say that psychedelics are relegated to party use only.