Researchers Trace Psilocybin to Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid


A team of researchers at the University of Utah and the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU) just completed the largest genomic diversity study for the genus Psilocybe fungi, the psychedelic mushrooms that have been enjoyed recreationally for generations and, in more recent times, used to treat a host of different mental health disorders.

According to a press release from the university, the researchers “found that Psilocybe arose much earlier than previously thought—about 65 million years ago, right around when the dinosaur-killing asteroid caused a mass extinction event,” and they “established that psilocybin was first synthesized in mushrooms in the genus Psilocybe, with four to five possible horizontal gene transfers to other mushrooms from 40 up to 9 million years ago.”

“Their analysis revealed two distinct gene orders within the gene cluster that produces psilocybin. The two gene patterns correspond to an ancient split in the genus, suggesting two independent acquisitions of psilocybin in its evolutionary history. The study is the first to reveal such a strong evolutionary pattern within the gene sequences underpinning the psychoactive protein synthesis,” the press release said.

The study was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Bryn Dentinger, a curator of mycology at the Natural History Museum of Utah and senior author of the study, said that if “psilocybin does turn out to be this kind of wonder drug, there’s going to be a need to develop therapeutics to improve its efficacy.” 

“What if it already exists in nature?” said Dentinger. “There’s a wealth of diversity of these compounds out there. To understand where they are and how they’re made, we need to do this kind of molecular work to use biodiversity to our advantage.”

According to the press release, all of “the study’s Psilocybe DNA came from specimens in museum collections around the world, with 23 of the 52 specimens identified as “type specimens,” the “gold standard designating a species against which all other samples are measured.” 

“For example, say you identify a wild mushroom as a certain species of chanterelle—you’re betting that the mushroom you picked is the same as the physical material sitting in a box in a museum. The authors’ molecular work on type species is a major contribution to mycology because it establishes an authoritative foundation for all future work on Psilocybe diversity in taxonomy,” the release said.

Alexander Bradshaw, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utah and lead author of the study, said that “type specimens represent hundreds of years of thousands of scientists’ collective effort to document diversity, way before people were thinking about DNA.” 

“That’s the beauty of it—no one has really sequenced type specimens at this scale, and now we get to produce molecular and genomic data to the gold standard of Psilocybe types for people to compare against,” Bradshaw said.

Armed with their new findings, the researchers are now “preparing experiments to test an alternative theory that they call the Gastropod Hypothesis,” according to the press release. 

“The timing and divergence dates of Psilocybe coincide with the KPg boundary, the geological marker of the asteroid that threw Earth into a brutal, prolonged winter and killed 80% of all life. Two lifeforms that thrived during the darkness and decay were fungi and terrestrial gastropods. Evidence, including the fossil record, shows that gastropods had a massive diversification and proliferation just after the asteroid hit, and it’s known that terrestrial slugs are heavy predators of mushrooms. With the study’s molecular dating of Psilocybe to around 65 million years ago, it’s possible that psilocybin evolved as a slug deterrent. They hope that their feeding experiments will shed some light on their hypothesis,” the press release said.

According to Bradshaw, such studies are vital to understanding such mysterious specimens. A few years ago, per the press release, the team “set a goal to get a genome sequence for every Psilocybe type specimen,” and so far, “they’ve generated genomes of 71 type specimens and continue to collaborate with collections around the world.”

“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of collections for doing studies like this. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, who spent thousands of people-power hours to create these collections, so that I can write an email and request access to rare specimens, many of which have only ever been collected once, and may never be collected again,” said Bradshaw.

Dentinger said that the team has “shown here that there’s been a lot of change in gene order over time, and that provides some new tools for biotechnology.”

“If you’re looking for a way to express the genes to produce psilocybin and related compounds, you no longer have to rely on only one set of gene sequences to do that. Now there’s tremendous diversity that scientists can look at for lots of different properties or efficiencies,” said Dentinger.



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