SAN FRANCISCO — A cicada-infecting fungus produces drugs that make the insects literally mate their butts off.
Massospora fungi make either a drug found in hallucinogenic mushrooms or an amphetamine found in khat leaves, plant pathologist Matthew Kasson of West Virginia University in Morgantown reported June 22 at the ASM Microbe 2019 meeting.
The fungi may use psilocybin, which causes people to hallucinate, or the amphetamine cathinone to suppress cicadas’ appetites and keep the insects moving and mating even after they lose big chunks of their bodies. The finding marks the first time that researchers have discovered a fungus, other than mushrooms, producing psilocybin, and the first organism outside of plants to make an amphetamine.
Massospora fungi are transmitted sexually from cicada to cicada. Huge plugs of fungi form on the insects’ abdomens, and during mating, parts of the abdomens may break away, Kasson said.
Losing body parts would surely slow most organisms down, and yet for the fungal-infected cicadas, “two-thirds of their body might be missing, and they would be whistling as they walk down the street,” Kasson said. The infected insects mate nearly nonstop, spreading the fungi to partners, he and colleagues report June 25 in Fungal Ecology.
Overall, the team discovered 1,176 small molecules in fungus-infected cicadas, including the two psychoactive drugs. The researchers aren’t sure how the fungi produce the drugs, which in other organisms require enzymes that seem to be missing from Massospora. So the fungi may be using new ways to make the compounds, Kasson said. The team is also trying to determine what the other molecules do to influence cicada behavior.