A newly discovered species of lichen from Ecuador that contains both tryptamine and psilocybin has recently been discovered, dispelling the belief that the infamous ‘magic mushrooms’ are the only plant species containing this hallucinogenic compound.
Lichens are of particular interest to biologists because of their symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi. The fungus creates the network that sustains, hydrates, and protects the algae, which in turn generates the sugars necessary to feed it through photosynthesis. While they both exhibit plant-like characteristics, neither are actually plants — they are composite organisms. This makes the psychedelic lichen even more intriguing.
Scientists have been speculating about this particular lichen for some time. Rigorous testing is needed before researchers can claim anything as fact, however, making anecdotal evidence simply insufficient. And so despite reports from a local tribe about its hallucinogenic qualities, researchers could not positively affirm the lichen to be so, although psilocybin is known to be a psychedelic compound.
How Was This Species of Lichen Discovered?
In 1981, enthobotanists Jim Yost and Wade Davis were doing some fieldwork in the dense rainforests of Ecuador when a local tribe, the Waorani, directed them to the lichen. Yost had previously heard about the existence of the hallucinogenic plant, but it was so rare that he never believed he would actually encounter it, despite having searched for it for seven years. In a paper written in 1983 detailing their discovery, the enthobotanists wrote:
In the spring of 1981, whilst we were engaged in ethnobotanical studies in eastern Ecuador, our attention was drawn to a most peculiar use of hallucinogens by the Waorani, a small isolated group of some 600 Indians. … Amongst most Amazonian tribes, hallucinogenic intoxication is considered to be a collective journey into the subconscious and, as such, is a quintessentially social event.
The Waorani, however, consider the use of hallucinogens to be an aggressive anti-social act; so the shaman, or ido, who desires to project a curse takes the drug alone or accompanied only by his wife at night in the secrecy of the forest or in an isolated house.
The lichen was so elusive that even the Waorani people did not possess it. Referring to it as nɇnɇndapɇ, they told the botanists that, while their shamans had once used it, they had not done so in “four generations — approximately eighty years – when ‘bad shaman ate it to send a curse to cause other Waorani to die.’ ”
The lichen’s rarity and importance to the tribe encouraged the two to intensify their search efforts, and, almost miraculously, they were soon successful, making them the first Westerners to see the elusive nɇnɇndapɇ. They then proceeded to preserve the unusually unique specimen for future analysis.
What Did the Research Reveal?
Three decades later, the DNA of the lichen was finally analyzed, proving that it was indeed a new species. In 2014, a team of researchers led by Michaela Schmull studied the lichen — also now known as Dictyonema huaorani — and used a technique called liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) to determine which chemical compounds existed in its tissues. The tests were positive to the presence of psilocybin, tryptamine, 5-meO-DMT, 5-MeOP (5-methoxytryptamine), 5-MEO-NMT and 5-MT.
This composition of chemicals makes this lichen a very interesting and unique specimen indeed. It is the only known species to exist with this specific grouping of substances. Researchers concluded that:
“Due to our inability to use pure reference compounds and scarce amount of sample for compound identification, however, our analyses were not able to determine conclusively the presence of hallucinogenic substances.”
Perhaps in the future when more resources are allocated to the research and funding of such psychedelic substances, we will be able to learn more about their potential health benefits. More and more research is revealing the healing properties of psychedelic substances including marijuana, psilocybin, MDMA, ayahuasca, and LSD. Yet because these substances are generally considered class 1 scheduled drugs (having no therapeutic value), studying them properly is difficult — even though they have shown promising results for treating cancer, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, anxiety, and more.