Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist known for his work on star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies, and the Milky Way, has opened a new Pandora’s Box of knowledge. This time, however, he has traded the glistening stars above for magical shrooms below… Neil deGrasse Tyson and the final frontier: magic mushrooms!
Along with co-host Matt Kirshen in a new episode of their podcast StarTalk, Tyson goes on a deep dive into the magical world of psilocybin mushrooms (and fungi as a whole). Guiding them via Zoom is Britain’s Merlin Sheldrake, ecologist and author of Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures.
Tyson, ever curious, pokes Sheldrake about the secrets of magic mushrooms, and the big role they play in shaping modern society as we know it. With burning questions such as: Can mushroom spores survive in outer space? Or seed another planet? How many spores are floating in the air at all times? Can psilocybin mushrooms help fight depression? What about climate change?
Read on for the answers to these queries and more!
Fruiting Bodies of Fungi
As a refresher, Sheldrake explains that mushrooms are the “fruiting bodies” of fungi. Most live their lives as branching networks of cells known as mycelium. Fungi are more closely related to animals than plants; they inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Yet fungi are also in a kingdom of their own, separate from flora (plants) and fauna (animals).
“Wow,” says Tyson. “When I grew up, there was no mushroom kingdom. That’s how old I am.”
The First Psilocybin Trip
So who did the first experiments to see if mushrooms could make us trip? They likely came from South America, says Sheldrake:
“Until the earlier part of the 20th century, only a few pockets of humans on the planet knew that some species of mushrooms produced psychoactive compounds. They eat these mushrooms as part of their ritual, spiritual practices. That knowledge then spread to the West. After that point, this handful of tropical species from Mexico were known to produce psilocybin mushrooms.
As soon as scientists heard about the Mexican species of psilocybin, people began to search for other types across the globe. Today, over 200 species of fungi are known to produce psilocybin. As for how the explorers distinguished the trippy mushrooms? With care, and tons of crushing, it seems:
“How do you know? People test them. Psilocybin bruises blue when you crush the mushroom, so you can sometimes have a clue from the color…which ones you might reasonably expect to be trippy.”
Growing Your Own Psilocybin
Tyson wonders if the trippy chemical, psilocybin, has ever been isolated from fungi. Do you have to grow the magic mushroom? Or can you just get psilocybin out of someone’s laboratory?
“That’s right,” says Sheldrake. “It was actually first isolated and named by Albert Hofmann, the guy who discovered LSD. But now, in many of the studies being carried out, they use pure crystalline psilocybin produced in a lab.
“It’s easier to grow the mushrooms than it would be to set up a lab and go through [the process] to isolate the molecule.”
Spores in the Air, Everywhere
Co-host Matt observes how fungi just sort of spontaneously appear.
“If you leave food in the fridge for too long, it gets moldy. I once lived in a pretty rotty shared house where we broke the toilet at a party. And a week later, since no-one fixed it, mushrooms were growing out of the carpet…Coz there must have been spores, originally, for them to land on something and start to grow.”
Just how many spores of fungi are generally in the air all the time? According to Sheldrake, there’s loads of ‘em:
“I’ve got a number if you want. 50 million tons of fungal spores are produced and released into the air every year — which is the weight of 500,000 blue whales. And these spores are such a large presence in the atmosphere, that they can [jump on] water droplets that go on to form clouds and rain. So they can change the weather.”
Mushrooms in the sky? Tyson is shocked:
“So it’s raining mushrooms, is what you’re telling us?”
What Do Mushrooms Eat?
As you probably know by now, fungi can eat many things. This is why we call fungi the ‘Great Decomposers’ of the planet. Without mushrooms and the mycelium that grows underground, our biosphere won’t be able to support itself much longer. Take wood, for example, says Sheldrake:
“If fungi didn’t decompose wood, then the Earth would be piled kilometers deep in un-rotted forest.”
Did you know that fungi can eat things besides wood? Their diet is a lot closer to a movable feast, as you’ll soon discover:
“[Fungi] can eat all sorts of unusual things. There’s a specialist mold that lives, in Canadian distilleries, off the vapors evaporating from whiskey barrels as they age. There’s a fungus called the Kerosene Fungus which lives in the fuel tanks of aircraft.”
What does Tyson make of his new knowledge of fungi?
“If they wanted to, they could just be our overlords. From what you’re describing here.”
Can Mushroom Spores Survive in Space?
So! Mushrooms have lived before humanity, and they’ll be here long after we’re extinct. Our fungal overlords have conquered the Earth. But can they thrive in outer space, too? Can mushroom spores even *survive* the vacuum of space? And if so, can we imagine them seeding distant planets — and do a much better job of survival than the human race?
Why not, Sheldrake says:
“Fungal spores are really tough, and some of them can survive these extraterrestrial conditions. Other types of fungal organisms, too. Lichens which are a…combination of fungi and bacteria and algae. They are some of the hardiest organisms known.
“And when they’re taken to [outer space], they suspend in the outside of the International Space Station in trays known as the ‘exposed facility’. They dry out — very quickly, of course, in the vacuum of space — but they can withstand radiation and temperature swings. And when you bring them back to Earth, they rehydrate and get on with living. Different parts of the fungal kingdom can withstand these extreme conditions.”
Tyson asks if fungi need spacesuits. Sheldrake laughs.
“No. They also tested them in the Mars Simulation facility, where you can put [fungi] in a box and turn on ‘Mars’. And you can just dial up or dial down the radiation to test them to the uttermost limits of survival.”
The great Neil deGrasse Tyson is stunned by this revelation:
“I have a whole new respect for mushrooms now. Goddamn.”
Did Prehistoric Animals Eat Fungi?
If fungi have been around for billions of years, then did prehistoric animals eat them? Were mushrooms a part of early animal diets?
“General consensus,” says Sheldrake. “From fossils and looking at their DNA, is that fungi have been around for just over a billion years. But mysterious fossils bearing an uncanny resemblance to [mycelium] have been found in deposits dating from 2 billion years ago.
“I’m not sure why animals would neglect these nutritious, delicious organisms growing within easy reach.”
Tyson wonders if animals would *knowingly* eat a psilocybin mushroom. Do dogs and cats eat psychedelics? According to Sheldrake, it happens far more often than you’d think:
“I was talking to Michael Beug, who runs the toxicology reports for North American Mycological Association. And he has a number of reports of dogs who watch their owners pick psychedelic mushrooms, and after watching them would also eat [them]. There’s only one example of a cat that repeatedly ate its owner’s psychedelic mushroom, and appeared to be a bit *mushroomed*.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson is suspicious:
“I think cats are always eating mushrooms basically. From the behavioral patterns that I’ve seen.”
Can Fungi Control Insects?
Like most overlords, fungi species can blur the lines between good and not-so-good. Matt notes that some species of Cordyceps (aka the Zombie Fungus) can infect insect hosts and compel them to die in very specific locations. For example, infected bullet ants that climb trees and die on the undersides of leaves — the ideal location for spores to rot from its skin and infect more ants below.
(“They sound evil,” says Neil deGrasse Tyson.)
How do the Cordyceps fungi relay such clear instructions to its victims? Is walking or climbing really so simple as to be hijacked by a fungus? Sheldrake warns us not to underestimate fungi:
“They’re metabolic wizards and can do such extraordinary things. Even if it was a complicated task to hijack an insect and control its behavior with a great deal of precision…I wouldn’t put it past them. You can have, for example, a carpenter ant and a Cordyceps fungus. And the fungus would grow into the ant…into its body, its legs, its cavities. It won’t grow into its brain though, which is interesting.
“[The fungi] produces in the ant an irresistible urge to climb upwards — overwriting the normal instinct of the ant, which is to stay close to the ground for safety…And then, around noon, the ant performs a ‘death grip’.
“It grips on the leaf vein where the Cordyceps has special needs. The fungus kills the ant, and grows a stalk out of the ant’s head, and rains down spores on the unfortunate ants passing below.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson, on the other hand, is petrified:
“The movie ‘Alien’ has nothing on this.”
Psilocybin in Cicadas
It’s not just ants, according to Sheldrake. Fungi can also infect cicadas, and cause the backside of the cicada’s body to break off. The male cicada becomes hypersexual — despite the fact that its genitals have long since crumbled away. The cicada then spouts spores from the broken “butt” as it flies around erratically.
Tyson notes how the northeast of the U.S. is in the middle of a cicada invasion, and that the astrophysicist had made a promise online to do his part:
“I said I would eat three of them when they finally came.”
Sheldrake gives a warning:
“You might want to watch out because massive spores of fungi overtake these cicadas…They produce psilocybin, and also amphetamine. So, if you eat enough of them, then you might start feeling stranger than you realize.”
We’ll hold you to your word, Mr. deGrasse Tyson. It’s a brave sacrifice.
How Psilocybin Shaped Human Evolution
Most psychonauts are already familiar with the Stoned Ape Theory. But in case you aren’t, here’s the gist of it. Ingestion of magic mushrooms expanded the primitive human’s mind, inspiring the growth of language and culture to early humans by way of tripping. Sheldrake agrees, to a certain extent:
“It’s clear to me that psychedelics, including psychedelic mushrooms, had a very big impact on human culture,,, Terence McKenna’s claim, the Stoned Ape Hypothesis, was that eating magic mushrooms had caused the human brain to increase in size… They grew to four times the size that they’ve grown in the previous 60 million years of primate evolution.”
Psilocybin has been known to grow nerve branches in dishes and culture. Does it also mean an increase in brain size in early humans?
“There are different versions of the Stoned Ape Hypothesis. Some of them suggest that big developments, like symbolic language…arose through psychedelics. I think that’s more plausible.
“You can imagine…where someone who took magic mushrooms had the idea to domesticate fire, had cooked food. And that allowed our brains to increase in size.”
Can Psilocybin Give You Brilliant Ideas?
Neil deGrasse Tyson finally gets it:
“So you’re saying this chemical [psilocybin] can give you brilliant ideas? The brain barely works as it does. Now you’re gonna toss in some extra chemicals that will alter your perception of reality… Have you had a deep thought that you’re pretty sure you wouldn’t have had, had you not exposed yourself to psychedelic mushrooms?”
“Yes,” says Sheldrake. “I think many people can certainly benefit from psychedelic experiences. Which is why it’s exciting to see this New Wave of research into psychedelic compounds pick up steam.
“These [psychedelics], they’ve been major parts of traditional human society for a very, very long time. It’s not like this [new wave] is *news* in the big picture of human existence. It’s just this new way…to make sense of these experiences within the frame of modern medical pathology, modern illnesses, and treatment programs.”
Fungal Networks Can Save the World
“Fungi make mycelium. Some of those fungal species produce mushrooms that we see; many of them don’t produce mushrooms… Some of them will enter trading relationships with plants, plug into plants, and exchange nutrients…Those plants are also promiscuous and plug into multiple fungal networks.
“The result is shared overlapping networks of plants and fungi. That’s what is referred to by the Wood Wide Web.
Today, there’s an explosion of interest in fungal applications — including ways in which fungi can help us stop climate change. Sheldrake lists down a few clever ideas:
“There are fungal medicines that can help humans recover from illnesses, but also help other animals. Mycologist Paul Stamets has done some amazing work showing that fungal extracts can help bees overcome viral pathogens — and so extend the lifetime of bees and beehives. Which in turn can help us adapt to changing climates, and changing… pollination schemes.
“There are also fungal materials built using mycelium which can help disrupt polluting plastics industries… [Mycelium] can create sustainable materials for use in buildings. But also in clothing, in a kind of leather-like material.
“There are fungal foods. New ways we can grow protein as delicious meat substitutes, using mycelium. Which would relieve our dependence on meat farming.”
‘Twas a mind-blowing experience, indeed, for the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to learn all about magic mushrooms — and the world of fungi as a whole — straight from a fungi expert. Who knew fungi played such a massive role in the planet’s survival? And when asked for any bits of wisdom he’s gleaned from this ‘mycelial madness’, mycologist Merlin Sheldrake hit the bullseye:
“These fungal networks are astonishing, and raise questions about how life works… The Cosmic Web, the structure of the universe, is now thought to be made up of big filaments of gas and galaxies arranged in clusters together. I would say, ‘As below, so above’, when thinking of these fungal networks and the structure of the universe.”
“So, Merlin,” asks Tyson. “When the mushrooms become our overlords… (I think he’s practicing for that. They might keep him as their pet, and eat the rest of us)”
Sheldrake laughs and replies: “They’ve already infected me.”
(You and us both, Merlin. We’ve got shroom fever!)
Do you love psychedelics? Check out our latest TikTok video right here!