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Magic mushrooms evolved to scramble insect brains, send them on wild, scary trips
How psilocybin evolved has more to do with sending insects on terrifying trips than it does making Phish sound good.
- Fungi species that produce psilocybin—the main hallucinogenic ingredient in "magic" mushrooms—aren't closely related to one another.
- Researchers have discovered that the way these fungi independently gained the ability to produce psilocybin is because of horizontal gene transfer.
- Based on how uncommon horizontal gene transfer is in mushroom-producing fungi and the types of fungi that produce psilocybin, it seems likely that the hallucinogenic chemical is meant to scramble the brains of insects competing with fungi for food.
Throughout our history, human beings have demonstrated a powerful and committed love of tinkering with our brain chemistry. We drink the waste of sugar-eating bacteria, smoke the leaves of garden-variety weeds, and munch on mushrooms whose chemicals give us such a strange experience we have to call it magic. We've been doing this for thousands and thousands of years, too: Cave paintings of certain mushroom species suggested that our ancestors liked to turn on, tune in, and drop out as well.
But the very fact that magic mushrooms exist and that their main psychoactive ingredient—psilocybin—can provide such a powerful experience is odd. Nearly all of the qualities of the various species of life on Earth have some kind of functionality. Deer don't have antlers because they're pretty; they're there for mating displays. Cheetahs don't run fast because they're big fans of cardio exercise; its their strategy for catching prey. Magic mushrooms don't produce psilocybin because it makes human beings hallucinate; it's there for a reason.
What makes psilocybin so unusual?
The researchers believe that psilocybin production evolved to disorient insects that would otherwise compete with the fungi for food or consume the fungi themselves.
New research in the journal Evolution Letters has uncovered evidence for the functional purpose of psilocybin in fungi. It's there to screw with insects; specifically, those insects that wouldn't mind chowing down on a fungi's mushroom or on the food that fungi themselves like to eat—dung and wood.
Part of what's made it so difficult to pin down the purpose of psilocybin in mushrooms is that psilocybin-producing mushrooms are mostly not related to one another. It doesn't appear as though a common ancestor developed the ability to produce psilocybin and passed it down to its offspring. Instead, five distinct, distantly related families of fungi make psilocybin.
Psilocybin is a secondary metabolite, meaning it's an organic compound not involved in the growth, development, or reproduction of the fungi itself. Necessarily, its expensive to produce secondary metabolites, and psilocybin in particular is a complicated molecule to make. So, it's extremely weird that it's popped up in disparate species of fungi.
What put the magic in magic mushrooms?
Psilocybe cianescans, one of the psilocybin-producing fungi that the researchers studied.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
It's unlikely that psilocybin production evolved in distinct mushroom species spontaneously, and since these species aren't related, it's pretty clear that vertical gene transfer—passing down genes from parent to child—is not responsible either. Instead, the researchers surmised that horizontal gene transfer must be the culprit.
Horizontal gene transfer doesn't take up much space in the general public's understanding of evolution. We typically think of evolution as gradual, random changes in the gene that accidentally improve the species' fitness in its environment, which are then passed down to offspring. But genetic material can also be passed between distinct but co-existing species.
While there are a few different mechanisms for horizontal gene transfer, larger critters probably receive genes from other species via transposons, genes that mostly do nothing besides jump around in the DNA and cause problems. Sometimes, transposons take another gene along with them, occasionally getting mixed up with viruses, insects, or other third parties who then deposit the gene into another species.
As an example, the transposon BovB makes up about a quarter of cows' genome, and it's also found in snakes, zebrafish, geckos, and other random species. Rather than there being a branch on the tree of life that traces a distinct line of critters with BovB, instead it looks more like a Jackson Pollock painting—random islands of animals with the BovB gene. Clearly, BovB didn't get to these disparate species by a common ancestor. Instead, it jumped around, hitching rides with third-parties like viruses and insects. Here's a video explainer.
Environment over ancestry
Horizontal gene transfer also appears to be how magic mushrooms got their magic. The interesting part about this is the outsized effect the fungi's environment plays on their evolution. Fungi compete with insects for dung and wood and also are frequently eaten by insects themselves. Producing psilocybin is a great way to scramble the brains of any insect that gets too familiar. Because psilocybin production is so useful to fungi that eat dung and wood, when genes for psilocybin production are randomly inserted in their genome, they thrive, outproducing non-psilocybin-producing fungi.
Psilocybin has recently gained recognition for its ability to treat depression, PTSD, and other mental disorders, which is wonderfully serendipitous for a chemical that started off as an insecticide. In fact, most of the chemicals humans use recreationally or medicinally were made by plants and fungi to ward off insects that would eat them or eat their food. Now, thanks to this research, we have another way to identify what kinds of plants and fungi might hold secret chemicals we can use to improve our lives.
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.
- When most of your life is spent doing one thing, it matters if that thing is unfulfilling or if it makes you unhappy. According to research, most people are not thrilled with their jobs. However, there are ways to find purpose in your work and to reduce the negative impact that the daily grind has on your mental health.
- "The evidence is that about 70 percent of people are not engaged in what they do all day long, and about 18 percent of people are repulsed," London Business School professor Dan Cable says, calling the current state of work unhappiness an epidemic. In this video, he and other big thinkers consider what it means to find meaning in your work, discuss the parts of the brain that fuel creativity, and share strategies for reassessing your relationship to your job.
- Author James Citrin offers a career triangle model that sees work as a balance of three forces: job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle. While it is possible to have all three, Citrin says that they are not always possible at the same time, especially not early on in your career.
The planet is making a lot less noise during lockdown.
- A team of researchers found that Earth's vibrations were down 50 percent between March and May.
- This is the quietest period of human-generated seismic noise in recorded history.
- The researchers believe this helps distinguish between natural vibrations and human-created vibrations.
Earth is quieter as coronavirus lockdowns reduce seismic vibration<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cc871d5d88a79ecc6605ce488c26a7c1"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_yFF2MziwPA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The team investigated seismic data from a global network of 268 stations spread out across 117 countries. As lockdown measures in different regions began, they tracked the drop in vibrations. Singapore and New York City recorded some of the biggest drops, though even Germany's Black Forest—famous for its association with the Brothers Grimm fairy tales—went quieter than usual.</p><p>The researchers also relied on citizen-owned seismometers in Cornwall and Boston, which recorded a 20 percent reduction from relatively quiet stretches in these college towns, such as during school holidays. </p><p>The environmental impact of lockdown has been dramatic. Indian skylines are notoriously grey. This <a href="https://www.axios.com/coronavirus-lockdown-pollution-drops-india-156b4f1d-160b-44d9-885a-148960b9e469.html" target="_blank">collection of photos</a> shows how quickly nature recovers when humans limit travel and industry. Such photographs also make you wonder why we cannot control emissions to begin with, now that we know the stakes. </p><p>Lead author, Dr Thomas Lecocq, says their research could help seismologists suss out the difference between human-created vibrations and natural vibrations, potentially resulting in longer lead times when natural disasters are set to strike. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"With increasing urbanisation and growing global populations, more people will be living in geologically hazardous areas. It will therefore become more important than ever to differentiate between natural and human-caused noise so that we can 'listen in' and better monitor the ground movements beneath our feet. This study could help to kick-start this new field of study."</p>
Stray puppies play in an abandoned, partially-completed cooling tower inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017 near Chornobyl, Ukraine.
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images<p>The Earth is much stronger than us; humans are its products. In his 2007 book, "The World Without Us," Alan Weisman details just how quickly nature recovers from our insults. Chernobyl offers a <a href="http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160421-the-chernobyl-exclusion-zone-is-arguably-a-nature-reserve" target="_blank">real-world example</a>, while <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/even-if-injection-of-fracking-wastewater-stops-quakes-wont/" target="_blank">earthquakes caused by fracking-related wastewater injection</a> in Oklahoma are evidence of how much damage human "vibrations" cause.</p><p>Weisman's poetic homage imagines a symbiotic relationship with nature. This relationship depends on our cooperation, however. Weisman knows we aren't long for this world, nor is this world long for this universe: in just five billion years, give or take, Earth will implode. We all live on borrowed time. How we live during that time defines our character. </p><p>While he strikes a hopeful tone, Weisman knows nature will eventually have her way with us.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"After we're gone, nature's revenge for our smug, mechanized superiority arrives waterborne. It starts with wood-frame construction, the most widely used residential building technique in the developed world. It begins on the roof, probably asphalt, or slate shingle, warranted to last two or three decades—but that warranty doesn't count around the chimney, where the first leak occurs." </p><p>The play-by-play of our demise continues, though Weisman offers plenty of proactive advice. The question is, will we be able to live up to it? Sadly, nothing in modern society hints at the possibility. </p><p>The only way we seem willing to pause our relentless pursuit of "progress" is when we're forced to do so, as in the current pandemic. The results, as the team in Belgium shows, are measurable. Whether or not we heed the call to slow our impact remains to be seen. Given precedent, it's unlikely, though as Weisman concludes, one can always dream. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>