Psilocybin, the active hallucinogenic compound found in mushrooms, has increasingly been on the radar of scientists and researchers, who believe it may be helpful in treating anxiety, addiction, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A new harvesting method—metabolic engineering—may allow industrial-scale production of highly concentrated psilocybin. It only requires bioengineering a bacterium to poop it out of its cells.
The result, obviously, isn’t actual feces—unlike some of the more traditional sources of “magic mushrooms.” The team from Miami University in Ohio set out to test whether they could stimulate a bacterium—in this case, Escherichia coli—to produce psilocybin as one of its metabolic byproducts. Medical-grade psilocybin production, which typically requires farming crops of Psilocybe cubensis or Psilocybe semilanceata, is expensive, requiring “extensive real estate and time” to harvest. The end yield is around $2 per milligram for pharmaceutical-grade psilocybin.
However, the researchers at Miami University may have found a bio-hack that can circumnavigate the traditional barriers to psilocybin production.
“We are taking the DNA from the mushroom that encodes its ability to make this product and putting it in E. coli. It’s similar to the way you make beer, through a fermentation process,” said biochemist Andrew Jones in a press release. “We are effectively taking the technology that allows for scale and speed of production and applying it to our psilocybin producing E. coli.”
After identifying the most optimal prokaryotic host, named pPsilo16, and establishing the best fermentation method with negligible intermediate product buildup, the team used metabolic engineering and bioreactors to create the highest concentration of psilocybin to date.
“What’s exciting is the speed at which we were able to achieve our high production,” Jones continued. “Over the course of this study we improved production from only a few milligrams per litre to over a gram per litre, a near 500-fold increase.”
Medical trials for the use of psilocybin continue and, in the meantime, scientists now know how to produce a high-quality, low-cost, industrial-scale strain.
The Miami University team’s research can be found in Metabolic Engineering.