A team of researchers at Miami University in Ohio has managed to engineer Escherichia coli bacteria to produce psilocybin, a psychedelic substance usually produced by so-called “magic mushrooms” and which in recent years is proving increasingly interesting in the treatment of people suffering from depression or other mental illnesses such as addiction.
Since mushroom cultivation can be quite difficult and can take months, it has never proved to be very practical for the production of drugs. On the other hand, the synthetic production of psilocybin itself is equally difficult and the process is very expensive. The researchers have therefore thought of modifying these microbes so that they can generate up to 1.16 grams of psilocybin per litre of culture medium. This is the highest yield to date for engineered microorganisms producing this substance and opens the door to more widespread therapeutic use.
They have in particular ensured that the Escherichia coli bacteria incorporated three genes of the fungus Psilocybe cubensis. In this way the bacteria began to synthesize psilocybin from the 4-hydroxyindol molecule.
As Alexandra Adams, a chemical engineering student at the above mentioned university and one of the authors of the study published in Scientific American, explains, the main advantage of this procedure is that it is much cheaper than all the other methods.
Currently the only limit is represented by the danger that these bacteria could also generate toxic or allergenic microbial material and the latter must be absolutely removed before any possible use of the resulting psilocybin but in any case the results seem impressive.