03 January 2022 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Anja Aucamp
Dr Marieka Gryzenhout
Dr Marieka Gryzenhout believes there still is much to be learned about mushrooms.

For the uninformed, mushrooms are mysterious little toadstools that appears on one’s lawn after the rains, or that white or brown button-like vegetable that one buys with one’s produce to use in a stir fry. But for mushroom lovers and the fungi-obsessed, the mysteries of mushrooms are there to be investigated. It is part of a scavenger hunt, as one does not always know where and how to find them.

Dr Marieka Gryzenhout, Senior Lecturer and researcher in the Department of Genetics at the university, recognised that much is still to be learned about mushrooms and decided to team up with other researchers with the same appreciation for fungi. Although their research focuses on different aspects of mushrooms, all three researchers, with a team of postgraduate students, are doing work on magic mushrooms, including our own local species, Psilocybe natalensis

Finding the magic

Zurika Murray, a lecturer and researcher, also from the Department of Genetics, is linking her work to the serotonin system of animals – where the compounds produced by these mushrooms have been shown to be able to aid its function or even mimic it. Bennie Viljoen, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Biochemistry, looks at their cultivation, the compounds they produce and also the applications of these mushrooms. This work supports some of his earlier research such as the nutritional properties of edible exotic mushrooms and using medicinal mushrooms for improved human health. 

Dr Gryzenhout, who describes herself as passionate about mushrooms and other fungi is author of the Pocket Guide to Mushrooms of South Africa, of which a new version with 10 more species has just been published that includes these magic mushrooms. About 18 months ago she also co-published the Field guide to mushrooms & other fungi of South Africa. Currently she is working on the first-ever formal study on magic mushrooms in South Africa. “Never has there been a study published identifying these species, including the local species Psilocybe natalensis, and where they are to be found in South Africa,” she says.

Her study group is helping amateur mycologists to verify identities of the various psychedelic mushroom species, and others found throughout the country, and to build the biodiversity knowledge regarding magic mushrooms for South Africa, based on scientific evidence. She believes that in the future these fungi will be further characterised to study the compounds they produce for possible pharmacological use. 

She is also very excited about the help they received from a large network of enthusiastic amateur mycologists across South Africa, who provided them with their first samples to typify. “In the process, two possible new species have already been discovered that awaits description. We learn what these fungi look like, what their unique DNA sequence is, and we name the new ones,” she says.

Studying the magic

Dr Gryzenhout and her co-workers decided to study magic mushrooms because of their potential to treat neurological disorders and other health problems. Potential uses are for conditions such as depression, addictions therapy and migraine treatment. They also believe that the effects they produce in the brain have tremendous probability to treat psychological disorders and other physiological problems.

The use that these fungi may have for the man on the street is still hampered because mechanisms are in place to disallow their overuse. They are also classified as an illegal substance. “Magic mushrooms or tinctures from mushrooms cannot be subscribed, despite indications that the contained compounds could be very effective treatments. That is because, unlike marijuana, no form of usage has yet been legalised in most parts of the world. With magic mushrooms being considered illegal, research to explore this treatment potential of these mushrooms have also been greatly hindered,” explains Dr Gryzenhout. 

“Never has a study been published identifying these species, including the local species Psilocybe natalensis, and where they are to be found in South Africa.” – Dr Marieka Gryzenhout

For example, it is only a legal drug in ‘coffee shops’ or mushroom shops in the Netherlands, and more recently in one state in the United States after the legalisation of marijuana gave it some impetus.

Experiencing the magic

Although it is not quite known if one can get addicted, it is considered to be less addictive than other drugs. Many people use if because of the feeling of spiritual awakening, including experiences of hallucinations, visual patterns, euphoria, and a sense of wellbeing. 

“Prolonged use of large doses can, however, lead to ill effects, such as psychosis and personality disorders. Other adverse effects upon using these mushrooms may include severe negative emotions, enhanced psychological problems, physical symptoms such as vomiting, and uncontrolled behaviour,” she says. 

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