Kasson Research Group Finds Psilocybin Cocktail in the Animal Kingdom

Psilocybin Cocktail Found in Insects

Researchers at West Virginia University have discovered the first evidence of psilocybin within the animal kingdom.  The Kasson Group at West Virginia University found psilocybin and other psychoactive molecules in cicadas that were infected by the fungus Massospora.  This finding suggests that the Massospora fungus uses some sort of psilocybin entourage effect to control the cicadas.  Here’s how it works:

  • Cicadas spend 13-17 years underground feeding on roots.
  • After over a decade beneath the earth, the cicadas emerge to mate (and make lots of noise).
  • As they emerge, the cicadas become infected by a fungus called Massospora.
  • The Massospora fungus eats the infected cicadas and spreads throughout their bodies.
  • The fungus creates a mass of spores that looks like a white plug where the rear end of the cicada used to be.
  • As they fly around, the infected cicadas spread the fungus spores from the plug to the soil and other cicadas.
  • Researchers discovered Massospora contains psilocybin and cathinone.
  • The researchers think the Massospora fungus drugs the cicadas so they fly around spreading spores as is nothing was wrong, despite having the lower third of their bodies eaten away.

Kasson Research Group Identifies Psilocybin in Massospora-Infected Cicadas

Matthew Kasson, assistant professor of forest pathology at West Virginia University, looked at all the chemicals found in the white fungal plugs of Massospora infected cicadas.  Kasson and his team found that the banger-wings species contained substantial quantities of psilocybin and at least one other active chemical, cathinone.  Cathinone is an amphetamine found in the khat plant what grows in the Middle East and Africa.

According to Greg Boyce, a member of Kasson’s team,  “no one has ever detected psilocybin in anything other than mushrooms, and those fungi have been evolving separately from Massospora for around 900 million years.” Another new discovery of this work was detecting cathinone in a fungus. Up until now, it was only known to be in the khat plant.

By flying around, the cicadas spread the Massospora spores, a phenomenon which Kasson and his team refer to as “flying saltshakers of death.” Perhaps from the Massospora’s perspective, this phenomenon is more appropriately termed “flying saltshakers of life.”

There are examples in nature of parasitic fungi controlling the behavior of their host insects. One is the Ophiocordyceps fungi which creates zombie ants. Kasson’s Group suspects that the drug cocktail in the spore plugs helps the Massospora fungus control the cicada’s behavior.

Evidence of Psilocybin Entourage Effect

Kasson’s group identified both psilocybin and cathinone in cicadas infected by Massospora.  They also found that Massospora has the right genes and precursor substances for making these chemicals. So, the combination of active ingredients is not an accident.

Cicadas infected with the Massospora fungus contain at least two molecules known to be psychoactive in humans: psilocybin (left) and cathinone (right).

There are behavioral aspects of these drugged cicadas that Kasson thinks may be related to the drug cocktail. Male cicadas with Massospora plugs become hyperactive and hypersexual. They try to mate with anything, including other males. Interestingly, they even imitate the wing-flicking behavior of females to entice males toward them. These behaviors only make the cicadas fly around more, spreading Massospora spores. Kasson believes the effect of the amphetamine cathinone may be the cause of the hyperactivity and hypersexuality. But, he says understanding how psilocybin and/or its metabolites are affecting cicadas may be a more difficult puzzle to solve.

However, much of the cicada/psilocybin relationship is still a mystery. One of the major questions to be answered are the reasons behind the selection of chemicals and the mechanisms of action. According to Kathryn Bushley, assistant professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of Minnesota, “There’s a lot of curiosity about how these fungi might actually manipulate behavior, and this is the first time that anyone has identified chemical compounds that could play that role.”

Further research is needed to understand the mechanism of action. How do these psilocybin cocktails exert their effects on cicadas? In humans, psilocybin (actually psilocin) is believed to exert its effect by selectively stimulating serotonin 2A receptors (5-HT2A). But how does that work in cicadas? Furthermore, do cicadas dephosphorylate psilocybin into psilocin as humans do?

Another outstanding question pertains to polypharmacology: Why has the Massospora evolved to produce a chemical cocktail comprising psilocybin and cathinone?  Based on our present understanding, this combination would appear to provide some level of entourage effect.  But, it is unclear why nature has evolved to produce this particular combination of psychedelics and amphetamines.

The DEA’s Stance on Handling Drug Infested Cicadas

According to Kasson’s group, eating Massospora infected cicadas could produce a psychedelic effect in humans. They explain that “it would probably take a dozen or more” to “get high”.  Does that mean that these cicadas are subject to regulation by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)?  Kasson and his group considered this potential problem.

Kasson  explained that he encountered a momentary feeling of panic when he realized that this research involved handling Schedule I drugs.: “ I thought: OH CRAP. The DEA is going to come in here, tase me, and confiscate my flying saltshakers.”  But, he contacted the DEA and received a reasonable response. The agency decided that no controlled substance permit was required because the drug is found in such small quantities within the cicadas, and since Kasson had no plans for concentrating it.

Further Reading

See article in the Atlantic by Ed Yong.