The 1976 book Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide is a classic manual for raising the illegal hallucinogen. But while its whimsical gardening tips — “mushrooms are fully dried when hard to the touch, like crackers” — are still relevant today, they may not be for long. That’s because earlier this month researchers announced they had genetically engineered a strain of a ubiquitous bacterium that can pump out the potent psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, called psilocybin, without using the fungus at all.
The team took genes related to psilocybin synthesis, plucked from the genome of one psychedelic mushroom species, and inserted them into the DNA of Escherichia coli, a common bacteria that lives in the human body. The new recombinant strain produced psilocybin as it grew. Already medical compounds like insulin and human growth hormone are made through similar synthetic biology methods, and the new findings open the possibility that psilocybin could also be produced en masse without relying on farms of whole mushrooms or costly chemical synthesis.
There’s good reason to try. Psilocybin has proven its worth in early clinical trials as a powerful treatment for anxiety, depression, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder, slowly shedding its association with the unruly counterculture of the 1960s. If its success in psychological studies continues, psilocybin could potentially treat millions of people who don’t respond to traditional pharmaceuticals.
Industrial production of psilocybin is already in the works. Startups like Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s COMPASS Pathways have begun synthesizing the compound according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s stringent Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) regulations. The chemically synthesized psilocybin can qualify for Phase 3 clinical trials in the U.S. and EU, but following those rules is prohibitively expensive, hampering research efforts.
While the main focus is the pharmaceutical market — meaning for use treating mental illness — Jones notes that there’s…