Why Magic Mushrooms Turn Blue?

Why do magic mushrooms display a blue hue upon being cut? Chemists have recently solved this long-standing enigma, discovering that the deep blue pigments responsible are akin to indigo, the same dye used in blue jeans.

Known scientifically as Psilocybe, these mushrooms are noted for containing the psychoactive substances psilocybin and psilocin. They belong to a group of fungi that quickly turn blue when damaged or bruised. While in other mushrooms like those from the Boletales order, this blue color results from oxidized compounds like gyrocyanin or pulvinic acid, this is not what happens in Psilocybe mushrooms.

Previous studies had pointed to oxidized psilocybin as the cause of the blue color in Psilocybe mushrooms, yet the specific pigment and the biochemical processes behind its formation had remained a mystery until now.

 

Unlocking the Blue Mystery of Magic Mushrooms

Magic Mushrooms’ Psychedelic Compounds Investigated

Magic mushrooms, scientifically known as Psilocybe, are renowned for their psychotropic compounds, psilocybin and psilocin.

Decoding the Blue Transformation

Dirk Hoffmeister of the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology in Germany, along with his team, has dedicated years to studying Psilocybe cubensis. Having observed the mushrooms’ enigmatic blue reaction frequently in their lab, Hoffmeister’s curiosity was piqued. “We were just curious and tried to solve a phenomenon that’s been known for decades,” he remarks.

Despite numerous attempts by previous researchers, the exact nature of the blue compound had eluded discovery until Hoffmeister’s team applied more advanced techniques. “This is where previous researchers—very talented people—had to give up, and that’s where we went one step further with unconventional analytical methods,” Hoffmeister explains.

Advanced Techniques Reveal Complex Pigment Structure

Employing a comprehensive array of analytical tools such as liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry, Maldi mass spectrometry, infrared spectroscopy, and time-resolved nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, the team meticulously observed the forming compounds.

It turns out that the blue pigment is not a singular substance but rather a complex mixture of linked psilocybin oxidation products. Predominantly, these are quinoid psilocyl oligomers—compounds that bear a striking resemblance to indigo, the vibrant blue dye used in jeans. “Both [the blue compounds and indigo] share structural similarities in the indole core, and in both, the basis for the color is a quinoid,” explains Claudius Lenz, the study’s lead author.

Revealing a Cascade Reaction in Pigment Formation

The research uncovered that all six pigments identified are results of a cascade reaction initiated by psilocybin. A phosphatase enzyme removes a phosphate group from psilocybin, converting it to psilocin. Subsequently, an oxidizing enzyme called laccase transforms it into psilocyl radicals. These radicals then combine to form C-5 coupled subunits, which further polymerize via C-7.

Jaclyn Winter, a researcher at the University of Utah who specializes in natural product biosynthesis in bacteria and fungi, commended the team’s work: “I think they did a beautiful job of showing the cascade reaction.”

This breakthrough not only deepens the understanding of the biochemical pathways in psychedelic mushrooms but also opens new avenues for research into similar compounds and their effects.

 

Investigating the Role of Blue Pigments in Magic Mushrooms

The Mystery of the Blue Pigments: Proposed Protective Functions

While the team has elucidated the chemical pathway that leads to the formation of blue pigments in magic mushrooms, the biological function of these pigments remains unclear. “Our hypothesis—and we don’t have any evidence for this yet—is that it might serve a protective role, like an on-demand repellent against predators,” Hoffmeister suggests. He speculates that these compounds could produce reactive oxygen species, potentially toxic to insects that might feed on the mushrooms. “I think we’re going to see a lot of follow-up studies on the true ecological role of these molecules,” adds Winter.

Shifting Perceptions of Psilocybin: From Recreational Use to Therapeutic Potential

Hoffmeister is optimistic that his research will not only spur further chemical studies of fungi but also help shift the public perception of psilocybin. Traditionally viewed as an illegal recreational substance, psilocybin shows promise as a potent therapeutic agent, particularly for treatment-resistant depression. “Psilocybin has fantastic potential as a medication,” he asserts.

Winter concurs, noting the increasing interest within the scientific community: “There’s quite a few groups who are studying psilocybin, especially because it’s been legalized in various states in the US and because it’s in clinical trials.” She believes that this study will significantly impact the field, furthering both academic and medical understanding and acceptance of psilocybin.

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