Psychedelic Lichen May Contain Multiple Hallucinogenic Compounds

Psilocybin and DMT are both extremely potent hallucinogens. WhiteHaven/Shutterstock 

Anyone who thinks botany can’t be cool ought to know about a recently discovered lichen that researchers believe could contain two of the strongest hallucinogenic compounds known to man, making it a candidate for the trippiest scientific development of recent years.

Discovered in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the species appears to contain both psilocybin – which is famously found in magic mushrooms – and a variant of DMT, the active ingredient in the sacred Amazonian brew known as ayahuasca, which has been used in shamanic rituals for centuries.

Though the Amazon is well known for its hallucinogenic plants, rumors about a psychedelic lichen were for many years thought to be nothing more than local legend. Unlike plants, lichens are composite organisms that arise from algae or a type of bacteria called cyanobacteria, which form symbiotic relationships with fungi.

The first clues as to the existence of this fabled lichen came when an ethnobotanical expedition from Harvard set out to try and locate it in 1981, and returned with a previously unknown species that seemed to match the description given by members of the Waorani tribe, who claimed to use the lichen in their rituals.

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The lichen Dictyonema huaorani was found in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Schmull et al / The Bryologist

The specimen – named Dictyonema huaorani in honor of the Waorani – then sat in storage for more than three decades, until a team of researchers decided to analyze its DNA in search of clues as to which compounds it creates. Publishing their findings in the journal The Bryologist, the study authors reveal that the lichen contains genes that are likely to be involved in the synthesis of both psilocybin and DMT, making it an all-in-one super hallucinogen.

However, because they only had a very small amount of rather old material to work with, they insist that their results are only “tentative”, and that a more thorough analysis of Dictyonema huaorani will be needed in order to confirm the presence of these compounds.

Given that both psilocybin and DMT are currently attracting the attention of neuroscientists for their apparent ability to treat neurological disorders, the existence of a lichen containing both of these substances – if confirmed – could be hugely valuable to both Western scientists and Amazonian healers alike.

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