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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?

Photo by Егор Камелев on Unsplash

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?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Psilocybe cianescans, one of the psilocybin-producing fungi that the researchers studied.

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.



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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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