Scientists have bioengineered bacteria to pump out psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient that puts the "magic" into magic mushrooms, in surprisingly abundant quantities.
Researchers from Miami University managed to transfer the DNA sequences responsible for psilocybin production from a mushroom into a microbe host, a strain of E. coli, the common bacterium most often associated with food poisoning.
Reported in the journal Metabolic Engineering, the bacteria are coaxed into producing psilocybin through a practice known as metabolic engineering that uses optimizing genetic and regulatory processes within cells to increase the production of a certain substance. Remarkably, the E. coli bacteria started to pump out quantities of the psychedelic substance into a petri dish. With further tweaking, they eventually yielded psilocybin at a concentration of 1.16 grams per liter.
“We are taking the DNA from the mushroom that encodes its ability to make this product and putting it in E. coli,” lead study author Andrew Jones, a chemical and biological engineer at Miami University, said in a statement. “It’s similar to the way you make beer, through a fermentation process. We are effectively taking the technology that allows for scale and speed of production and applying it to our psilocybin producing E. coli.
“What’s exciting is the speed at which we were able to achieve our high production. Over the course of this study we improved production from only a few milligrams per liter to over a gram per liter, a near 500-fold increase,” he added.
While the dream of easily produced psilocybin will no doubt make many psychonauts very happy, the synthesis of this substance is also of huge interest to scientists. Psilocybin is currently being used in clinical trials as a potential avenue for treating depression, addictions, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Off the back of this feat, the researchers argue they have made “a significant step” towards the industrial production of biologically derived psilocybin. Next up, the team hopes to study ways to make the E. coli bacterium an even better host and looks forward to seeing if it’s possible to produce psilocybin to the levels required for the pharmaceutical industry. This has the potential to make research into the therapeutic effects of psilocybin both easier and cheaper to carry out.
Furthermore, there’s a slow but steady movement towards the legalization of psilocybin, as shown by the recent decriminalization of magic mushrooms in Denver.
Speaking to IFLScience, Jones added: “Although we have made great gains by increasing the psilocybin production abilities of this E. coli strain, there is still quite a bit of work to be done. We are currently working to improve the genetic background of our E. coli strain to make it a more stable and efficient host for the biosynthesis."
“As with all research, it will take some time to develop the technology, but we do plan to publish our findings once they are discovered and reproduced. Stay tuned!”