The bioengineered bacterial strain, dubbed pPsilo16, can be harnessed to produce psilocybin at industrial scales

Magic mushrooms are well on their way to becoming a medical treatment, just like cannabis. They can potentially treat depression, PTSD, alcoholism, and other maladies, but until someone can carefully dose pills made of the “magic” found in these fungi (or create a synthetic version of psilocybin), they’ll likely never see FDA approval. 

That’s why a team of scientists at Miami University recently published a paper detailing how they could industrially produce that magic component, psilocybin, with nothing but vats, bacteria, and some sugar.

The paper, published in the December 2019 edition of Metabolic Engineering, explained how they spliced the mushroom genes for making psilocybin into E. coli bacteria, a microorganism that’s often bioengineered to produce chemicals of interest.

“It’s similar to the way you make beer, through a fermentation process,” said J. Andrew Jones, a chemical and biological engineering professor at Miami University and one of the study’s authors, 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.”

The fermentation process that Jones referred to will not produce trippy beer, if that’s what you’re wondering. Rather, technicians can simply add sugar to a vat (aka a bioreactor) that houses the psilocybin-spliced bacteria, which the team calls pPsilo16. After eating the sugar, the bacteria essentially “poop” out psilocybin as a waste product. Simply separate the psilocybin from everything else in the vat and voila, you’ve got a ton of pure psilocybin for research purposes. (And only research purposes, of course.)

Gallery — Smoke Weed, Eat Shrooms, and Shine:

But why go through all the trouble of creating a new breed of bacteria just to make something that occurs naturally in ‘shrooms? According to the researchers, once they tweak their recipe, pPsilo16 can churn out psilocybin at 1.16 grams per liter. Compare that to the most common psychedelic mushrooms, Psilocybe cubensis, which is only 0.30 to 1 percent psilocybin by dry weight. 

While the Miami University research team’s findings are incredibly promising, psilocybin alone may not account for magic mushrooms’ ability to heal. Psilocybe cubensis contains dozens of other alkaloid compounds, like psilocybin, that may work in tandem to produce the mushroom’s medicinal effects. There are currently a few clinical trials in the US investigating the medical efficacy of psychedelic mushrooms. 

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