“The flying dead”: the infected cicadas with a psychoactive fungus similar to hallucinogenic mushrooms

An image to illustrate infected cicadas which are affected by a psychoactive fungus
© iStock/tsvibrav

A new study from West Virginia University discovered that a psychoactive fungus containing similar chemical to hallucinogenic mushrooms in infected cicadas.

The infected cicadas are described as “the flying dead” due to the zombie-like state that the psychoactive compounds in the fungus induce. The research is published in Fungal Ecology and the inspiration for the research began in 2016 when billions of cicadas became present in the northeast United States.

Infected cicadas are like “Zombies”

Matt Kasson, assistant professor of forest pathology and one of the study’s authors, said: “They are only zombies in the sense that the fungus is in control of their bodies.”

The fungus is cicadas spend thirteen to seventeen years underground before they emerge as adults. Underground is usually where cicadas encounter the psychoactive fungus. Kasson explains that within seven to 10 days above ground, the abdomen begins to slough off revealing the fungal infection at the end of the cicada.

Kasson commented: “I love them (cicadas). They still scare me when they fall down my shirt or walk up my neck but I can appreciate something that spends almost two decades underground for six weeks of bliss, with or without the fungus.”

The psychoactive compounds

According to West Virginia University, when asked if humans could ”get high” from these psychoactive chemicals, Kasson said: “maybe, if you’re motivated enough. Here is the thing. These psychoactive compounds were just two of less than 1,000 compounds found in these cicadas. Yes, they are notable but there are other compounds that might be harmful to humans. I wouldn’t take that risk.”

The potential applications

Next, the team will resequence the fungus genome to analyse the gene expression in cicadas.

“We anticipate these discoveries will foster a renewed interest in early diverging fungi and their pharmacologically important secondary metabolites, which may serve as the next frontier for novel drug discovery,” conclude Kasson.

Source: West Virginia University

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