Scientists engineer E. Coli to produce magic mushroom hallucinogen

Representational picture. Reuters

Scientists have transformed a common bacterium – E. Coli -- into a psychedelic "drug factory" capable of pumping out huge amounts of psilocybin, the powerful psychoactive chemical found in "magic mushrooms", a study has said.

Psilocybin, found in more than 100 'shroom species, most notably in Psilocybe cubensis, which has a domed cap and skinny stem, was reportedly consumed since pre-historic period from around 9000 BC.

The stone paintings by Saharan aboriginal tribes of North Africa, as well as, rock paintings in Spain created about 6000 years ago hint at the use of the powerful psychoactive substance during certain religious rituals near Villar del Humo since ancient times.

According to ClinicalTrials.Gov, best known for inducing mind-bending hallucinations, psilocybin is currently being tested as a potential treatment for several psychiatric conditions, including addiction, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, but lacks resources and production on a mass scale for research or distribution as the expensive and slow fungi require a ton of space to grow.

The study published in journal Metabolic Engineering said Miami University scientists have produced mass scale psilocybin -- about 1.16 grams per liter per fermentation batch, quicker than ever before by engineering E. Coli.

Study author J. Andrew Jones said his team's production process -- by relocating the psilocybin-encoding DNA from mushrooms to the bacteria -- only "takes a few days to complete compared to much longer for mushrooms".

The team selected the most efficient strain -- pPsilo16 – of E. Coli and cultivated it in a bioreactor for mass production, said the researcher, adding their E. coli produced more psilocybin than any other organism retrofitted with "magic mushroom" DNA to date.

Canadian psychedelic company Field Trip is funding at the University of the West Indies in Mona, the world's first magic mushroom research center in Jamaica, aiming to research the profitable means of the fungi which is being used since ages as spiritual, as well as therapeutic purposes.

However, veteran David Nichols, a pharmacologist and professor at Purdue University, who has been studying psilocybin for 50 years, said this alternative approach was perhaps not as revolutionary as it seems, and cautioned the fermentation approach might not be as cheap as predicted since it requires expensive equipment and some extra steps.

A cheaper product would, however, allow researchers to study larger patients, ultimately leading to stronger support for the approval of psilocybin-containing pharmaceutical products, the author concluded.

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