Psychedelic Pharmaceuticals; Does a Psilocybin Drug Make Sense?
Psilocybin has an ancient and spiritual past that many believe to have a connection to the evolution of humankind. The chemical is a natural constituent of a fungus that often goes by the moniker “magic mushrooms,” and its effects range from anxiety relief to mystical experiences.
But now scientists have found a way to create psilocybin in a laboratory setting. And as with all artificially produced chemicals, the question arises as to whether scientists can replicate the intricacies, complexities, dynamism, and holism of organic ingredients that took nature eons to create.
Currently, methods of synthetically reproducing the chemical are in use but are relatively expensive. Jones said he was looking for a way to maintain “biological integrity” and reduce production costs, so he turned to metabolic engineering to increase a fungal cell’s ability to produce a compound of interest.
Follow the Money
Upon learning about these plans, those with a more naturalistic or holistic bent may ask: Why can’t mushrooms just be grown and harvested in natural conditions without the interference of scientists? Of course, the answer is rather simple: It’s all about the money.
Now that psilocybin has been recognized for its medicinal value, there’s huge profit potential in selling it. In order to carry out a business plan, there must be a way to increase yields and speed up production. Andrew Jones seems to have found a way to achieve both. He said, “Over the course of this study we improved production from only a few milligrams per liter to over a gram per liter, a nearly 500-fold increase.”
Miami University reported that Jones is pursuing the next phase of his psilocybin research by looking for ways to make E. coli bacteria a better host — the next step toward standardizing production levels that are “required by the pharmaceutical industry.”
Scientists argue that the university’s methodology isn’t a synthetic or artificial process. Instead, it’s a matter of splicing DNA. High Times magazine explained that after isolating the DNA sequence behind the production of psilocybin in mushrooms, the university’s “team did a simple copy/paste, splicing the mushroom DNA into the genome of E. coli. Then, they sat back and watched the E. coli work its mushroom magic, following the DNA’s instructions to produce psilocybin…By imbuing the humble E. coli bacterium with the psilocybin-producing power of a fungus, the researchers made the jump between two completely distinct domains of life.”
More Than Just a Recreational High
Psilocybin is naturally found in the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis, which grows wild in pastures and meadows. The mushroom is one of more than a hundred species that contain the psychoactive compounds psilocybin and psilocin. These “magic mushrooms” have long been used in Central American religious ceremonies, by ancient Japanese shamans, and by peoples across the globe.
While people use psilocybin mushrooms to produce a psychoactive effect that creates a mental and physical high, early human beings may have had a much more utilitarian and spiritual use. Some theorists, including Graham Hancock and Terence McKenna, believe mushrooms played a substantial role in the human species’ co-evolution with the planet (and all things natural).
McKenna made the case that psychedelics were instrumental in helping human beings evolve in consciousness and culture, “giving our mushroom-munching ancestors a leg up on rivals by enhancing their visual and linguistic capacities.”
Although most states in North America consider psilocybin mushrooms an illegal, controlled substance, these species of fungi are reportedly among the safest of mind-altering plants. They are non-addictive and nearly impossible (if at all possible) to overdose on, and can be home-grown. According to a substantial report by the Global Drug Survey, cited in Popular Science, people “tripping” on the mushroom are least likely to end up in the emergency room when compared to users of any other drug, including marijuana.
The Pharmacological Value of Magic Mushrooms
David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, said, “Psilocybin does in 30 seconds what antidepressants take three to four weeks to do.” A single dose of psilocybin, in addition to psychotherapy, can often resolve cases of depression and anxiety that resist standard treatment.
But anxiety is big business these days. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults in the United States who are age 18 and older — that’s 18.1 percent of the population every year. And people with an anxiety disorder are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor, and six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric issues, than those who do not suffer from anxiety disorders.
Is the New Psilocybin Unnatural?
While the new way of producing psilocybin may not be called synthetic, it certainly isn’t natural. Scientists have once again inserted themselves between the natural process and the human organism. It may be said that it is pure hubris to do so, simply because the natural order involves evolution — a slow process of adaptation and mutation.
When scientists intervene in this process, then the variables leading to the possibilities of what can occur are incalculable. And the idea of holism — a fact of nature that has brought us to this point in the life of all species — is discarded by mainstream science in favor of isolating active plant constituents and/or circumventing the natural process.
Now, thanks to — or because of — Miami University’s scientific breakthrough, as with so many other artificially-created chemicals and genetically engineered plants, the psilocybin race is on. Only time will tell whether side effects may come out of the latest efforts to produce yet another heretofore natural substance outside of nature.