“Strawberry Fields Forever”.
This comes to mind because psychedelic drugs have been in the news recently thanks to the publication of a popular book by Michael Pollan entitled “How to Change Your Mind“. This book explores a recently-renewed interest in the findings that so-called psychedelics, such as LSD and psilocybin, may help to significantly alleviate depression, anxiety and addiction.
In this fascinating book (which, by the way, I’ve recently read), Pollan describes his and other’s encounters with the most common naturally-occurring source of psilocybin, namely, Psilocybin mushrooms, a.k.a., “magic mushrooms”.
My first encounter with psilocybin-containing mushrooms, nearly 40 years ago, was with fungi in the genus Psilocybe. I was introduced to this fungus not through ingestion, but in a classroom at the University of Washington. This particular mycology class was taught by Professor Daniel Stuntz, who was an expert on psilocybin mushrooms. (Indeed, the species Psilocybe stuntzii was named in his honor.)
In the lecture about these mushrooms, Dr. Stuntz captivated us students with amazingly detailed and vivid descriptions of the psychoactive effects on people when they ingested Psilocybe mushrooms. (Dr Stuntz was careful to point out, however, that his descriptions were based solely on second-hand knowledge, from accounts he’d heard from other people.)
Perhaps Dr. Stuntz was careful not to admit sampling “magic mushrooms” because, back then, it was illegal in the United States (and most other countries in the world) to even possess psilocybin mushrooms. And the legal status regarding these mushrooms hasn’t really changed much since then. (For the current legal status of psilocybin mushrooms worldwide, please see here).
But this may soon change, however, for two reasons.
First, research regarding the dramatic psychological benefits of psilocybin has recently been reported in the media (see, e.g., Online Resources below) and has been nicely summarized in Michael Pollan’s best-selling book, mentioned above.
Secondly, there has recently been a major breakthrough regarding the biosynthesis of psilocybin.
“Magic Mushroom” Enzyme Mystery Solved
Along with the renewed interest in the potential mental health benefits of psychedelics, such as those produced by Psilocybe mushrooms, has come a major advance in the biosynthesis of psilocybin.
“The euphoria and hallucinations induced from eating Psilocybe “magic mushrooms” have earned the fungi a cult following. Sandoz chemist Albert Hofmann isolated and determined the structure of psilocybin, the main ingredient in mushrooms that leads to the psychedelic effects, nearly 60 years ago. That discovery and subsequent mind-altering experiments by Harvard University psychologist Timothy F. Leary have left scientists longing to develop a large-scale synthesis of the compound for medical uses, which include treating anxiety and depression in people with terminal cancer and treating nicotine addiction. Yet no one has been able to unravel the enzymatic pathway the mushrooms use to make psilocybin, until now.” (From an article in Chemical & Engineering News.)
In 2017, three scientists in Germany at Friedrich Schiller University Jena reported that they had not only identified and characterized four key enzymes in the biosynthesis of psilocybin, but had also identified the genes from “magic” mushrooms coding for these enzyme (see Ref. 1 below).
The major significance of this work regarding the commercial biosynthesis of the psychoactive drug psilocybin, and also making large-scale production a possibility, has not been lost on these investigators and others (see, e.g., Refs. 2 & 3 below).
With these genes isolated, it is now possible to genetically engineer organisms other than mushrooms (such as bacteria and yeast, e.g.) with these genes (i.e., heterologous expression) for the in vivo biosynthesis of psilocybin.
So, what does this all have to do with “psychedelic strawberries”?
Next Time: On genetically engineering psilocybin-producing strawberries….
1. Fricke, J., F. Blei, and D. Hoffmeister (2017) “Enzymatic synthesis of psilocybin.” Angewandte Chemie, Vol. 56, pp. 12352-12355. DOI: 10.1002/anie.201705489 (Abstract)
2. Fricke, J., C. Lenz, J. Wick, F. Blei, and D. Hoffmeister (2018) “Production options for psilocybin ‐ the making of the magic.” Chemistry, DOI: 10.1002/chem.201802758 (Abstract)
3. Hoefgena, S., et al. (2018) “Facile assembly and fluorescence-based screening method for heterologous expression of biosynthetic pathways in fungi.” Metabolic Engineering, Vol. 48, pp. 44-51 DOI: 10.1016/j.ymben.2018.05.014 (Abstract)
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