Genetically engineered yeast that can produce psilocybin, one of the primary psychedelic compounds found in “magic mushrooms,” are here. And these high-tech microorganisms could revolutionize future research into the drug’s medical uses.
In the latest edition of the scientific journal Metabolic Engineering, Danish researchers announced that they created a strain of yeast capable of cranking out “high-levels” of psilocybin. Yeast do not naturally produce psilocybin; the compound is commonly found in mushrooms belonging to the Psilocybe genus.
And in case you’re wondering: Yes, these psychedelic yeast could be used to make trippy beer or bread, but those products will likely have short shelf lives. At least, for now.
Last year, American researchers created E. coli bacteria that could also churn out psilocybin. But there’s one major downside to having bacteria make this mind-blowing compound instead of yeast. For microorganisms to produce psilocybin, they’re fed sugar. The bacteria or yeast process the sugar through a series of biochemical steps, eventually turning the sweet stuff into the really, really sweet stuff — psilocybin.
The above steps require a special enzyme to convert sugar into psilocybin. Bacterial cells can’t produce the enzyme, even with genetic modification. So, technicians have to add the enzyme to the bacterial vat as an additional — and expensive — ingredient to get the job done. However, yeast can produce the same enzyme within their own cells, which means lower costs overall, as well as quicker, more efficient production.
But why rely on microscopic organisms to make psilocybin in the first place? After all, didn’t Mother Nature already provide us with natural psilocybin factories, e.g. shrooms?
“It’s infeasible and way too expensive to extract psilocybin from magic mushrooms, and the best chemical synthesis methods require expensive and difficult to source starting substrates,” said Nick Milne, one of the authors of the Danish study, in a university press release. “Thus, there is a need to bring down the cost of production and to provide a more consistent supply chain.”
While most people’s experience with psilocybin comes from recreationally tripping balls on shrooms, researchers such as Milne aren’t interested in getting high AF. Clinical trials in both the US and other countries show that psilocybin holds a lot of potential to treat conditions like depression, anxiety, substance addictions, and post-traumatic stress — illnesses that typically don’t respond to conventional medications or treatments.
Further, the Danish group’s end-goal isn’t making tons of psilocybin in a lab, as fun AF as that sounds. They also want to create an entirely new generation of drugs derived from psilocybin, and starting with these yeast cells will serve as the first step.
“Our interest is not only to make kilogram-scale production of psilocybin but to use the biological machinery to make new derivatives that aren’t available today,” Milne said. “Thus, it is very useful that we could not only demonstrate the production of psilocybin but also find many derivatives that could turn out to have important therapeutic relevance.”
While the mainstream medical community catches up to psilocybin’s potential, cities and states across America are already beginning to reform their laws that ban psilocybin mushrooms. Shrooms are one of the safest drugs known, yet the US government classifies psilocybin as a Schedule I drug alongside heroin. Denver, Oakland, and Santa Cruz, California have already decriminalized the fungus for personal use. Nearly 100 other cities are also considering decriminalizing psilocybin, though many of these campaigns are on hold due to the coronavirus lockdowns.