These fungi make cicadas mate nonstop with psilocybin or amphetamine | Science News


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These fungi drug cicadas with psilocybin or amphetamine to make them mate nonstop

The insects keep at it even if chunks of their abdomens fall off

2:42pm, June 25, 2019
Massospora cicadina

FREAKY FUNGUS  The cicada-infecting Massospora cicadina fungus makes an amphetamine called cathinone, which spurs cicadas to mate and spread fungal spores. Other species of the fungus produce psilocybin, more often found in hallucinogenic mushrooms.

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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.


M. Kasson. Psychoactive plant- and mushroom-associated alkaloids from two behavior modifying cicada pathogens. ASM Microbe 2019, San Francisco, June 22, 2019.  

G.R. Boyce et al. Psychoactive plant- and mushroom-associated alkaloids from two behavior modifying cicada pathogens. Fungal Ecology. Vol. 41, October 2019, p. 147. Published online June 25, 2019. doi: 10.1016/j.funeco.2019.06.002.

Further Reading

H. Thomson. Cicadas on different schedules can hybridize. Science News Online, April 20, 2018.

K. Baggley. Designer drugs hit dangerous lows to bring new highs. Science News. Vol. 187, May 16, 2015, p. 22.

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