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Psychedelic Lichen: Nature’s Best-Kept Secret

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in this article
  • Introduction
  • The World of Lichens: A Symbiotic Relationship
  • The Discovery of Dictyonema Huaorani
  • Psychoactive Potential
  • The Obstacles of Psychedelic Research
  • Continued Exploration of the Natural World

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Chemical Collective or any associated parties.


Most people know about psychedelics like LSD and magic mushrooms but the natural world is full of psychedelic substances we are completely unaware of. A recent discovery from the Ecuadorian Amazon is a previously unknown species of lichen called Dictyonema huaorani, which is believed to contain several distinct psychoactive compounds. This article explores the history of this organism and its symbiotic nature, as well as how it was discovered and the implications this discovery potentially has for various areas of study. The story of D. huaorani is fascinating, spanning decades, charting ethnobotany, scientific investigation, and the value of the historical knowledge of indigenous communities.

The World of Lichens: A Symbiotic Relationship

Lichens are incredible organisms comprised of the symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga or cyanobacterium, with each organism intrinsically linked. The fungal partner, called the mycobiont, is the structure, which provides protection and a framework for the growth of the lichen. The algal or cyanobacterial partner (the photobiont) harnesses the sun to generate nutrients through photosynthesis. This symbiotic relationship means lichens can be successful in many different environments, from the Arctic to the desert. They can grow on almost any surface, including rocks, trees, and even buildings. This adaptability makes them a common sight in ecosystems worldwide.

The genus Dictyonema, which includes the psychedelic lichen D. huaorani, is of particular interest among lichens.

These specific lichens are formed by the joining of a basidiomycete fungus and a cyanobacterium. This is a combination found in only about 1% of all known lichen species. This rarity, combined with the discovery of the psychoactive compounds contained within D. huaorani, has attracted renewed interest from many researchers and enthusiasts. The unique symbiotic relationship between the various elements in Dictyonema lichens has evolved over millenia, which has resulted in the production of a variety of secondary metabolites, some with psychoactive properties.

The Discovery of Dictyonema Huaorani

The modern story of D. huaorani begins with ethnobotanists Wade Davis and Jim Yost, who stumbled on this rare species while conducting research in eastern Ecuador (in 1981). They worked in tandem with a small and isolated indigenous group known as the Woarani and soon discovered that their usage of hallucinogens differed from other known Amazonian tribes. Unlike the majority of indigenous communities in the region, who believed psychedelic experiences should be communal and shared, the Waorani used these substances individually.

The Woarani shamans would secretly consume hallucinogens and use their perceived power to cast curses upon their enemies.

Davis and Yost learnt that the Waorani used two main hallucinogens: a species of Banisteriopsis, a vine closely related to ayahuasca, and an unknown lichen belonging to the genus Dictyonema. By learning about the traditional spiritual practices of the Woarani, and working alongside them, Davis and Yost were able to collect a sample of the lichen. This would later prove crucial in uncovering its secrets. This is a perfect illustration of the value of science collaborating with indigenous cultures and harnessing their spiritual usage and methods of consumption. Working in this way allowed Davis and Yost to locate this extremely rare and potentially significant lichen which may otherwise have remained unknown to science. This collaboration between researchers and indigenous communities is essential for maintaining and supporting biodiversity and ensuring that the hundreds, sometimes thousands of years of traditional knowledge is recorded and learned from, fighting off the incessant pressures of modernisation and the resulting, ever more rapid, environmental degradation.

Psychoactive Potential

Three decades after it was initially discovered by Davis and Yost, the sample they collected became the focus of a groundbreaking scientific study. In 2014, a team of researchers led by Michaela Schmull began to investigate the mysteries surrounding D. Hourani, using advanced techniques to explore its possible psychoactive properties. The first step of this analysis was to sequence the genome. This immediately confirmed that the lichen was in fact a previously undiscovered species.

In honour of the indigenous group that led to its discovery, the researchers named it Dictyonema huaorani.

With the lichen’s identity established, the team began the search for psychoactive compounds within its tissues. They first extracted a small amount of the lichen and then used liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) to analyse its contents, looking for signs of psychedelics. The results were intriguing, suggesting the presence of several compounds.

The data indicated the possible existence of:

  • Tryptamine
  • Psilocybin
  • 5-MeO-DMT
  • 5-methoxytryptamine (5-MeOT)
  • 5-MeO-NMT
  • 5-methoxytryptamine (5-Mt)

within the lichen’s chemical composition.

However as the aged sample was not in the best condition, and the researchers lacked any other specimens for comparison, they were unable to definitively confirm the presence of these compounds. Tryptamine and psilocybin were considered the most likely chemicals contained within D. Hourani, as psilocybin is known to occur naturally in many species of fungus. Other compounds, such as 5-MeO-DMT, had never previously been found in a fungus or lichen. This of course means that the presence of these compounds is possibly more speculative. The discovery of psychoactive compounds in D. huaorani allows for new avenues of research into the chemistry and pharmacology of lichens as a whole. As more studies are conducted on this unique organism, scientists may uncover further novel and potentially beneficial compounds and gain insights into how and why these species produce psychedelic compounds. It is not hyperbole to say that the identification of psychoactive compounds in a lichen challenges our fundamental understanding of the distribution and evolution of these molecules in nature.

The Obstacles of Psychedelic Research

The study of D. huaorani faces similar challenges to the broader issues of all psychedelic research. The biggest obstacle is the scarcity of samples. David and Yost’s sample of the lichen is still the only available example of the organism for scientific study. The corresponding rarity of D. huaorani means collecting new samples is incredibly difficult. Combine this with the Waorani’s reluctance to share the lichen with outsiders due to its historical and cultural significance and researchers have a challenging task. This limits the ability of researchers to conduct further, more detailed studies to confirm the psychoactive compounds believed to be contained in D. huaorani.

Another significant challenge is of course the seemingly endless (pointless) War on Drugs and the resulting restrictions on psychedelic research. The difficulty in obtaining pure reference compounds for even common and well-known substances like psilocybin and 5-MeO-DMT limits scientists’ abilities to compare their findings.

The challenges faced by researchers studying D. huaorani and nearly all other psychoactive organisms highlight the necessity of a more open, rational approach to psychedelic research by acknowledging the now widely accepted benefits of these substances. Working to overcome the legal and cultural barriers which limit their study will allow scientists to better understand their effects on the human mind and explore their potential applications in medicine, therapy, and personal growth.

Continued Exploration of the Natural World

The discovery of Dictyonema huaorani is a reminder of the many secrets which remain hidden in the the natural world. From the oceans to the rainforests, countless organisms are still completely unknown and unstudied.

Every one of these organisms has the potential to change our understanding of life on Earth.

As we continue to explore the biodiversity of the planet and investigate the potential medicinal and spiritual applications of psychedelics discoveries like D. huaorani should inspire us. Approaching the natural world with a sense of wonder and respect for its complexity will yield so much for the future. The sudden discovery of this rare psychedelic lichen highlights the importance of preserving and protecting the world’s ecosystems.

The Amazon rainforest, where D. hourani was discovered, faces ever-increasing external pressure. Threats, including deforestation, climate change, and the pressures of human activity are actively destroying our ability to discover these potentially life-changing substances. Working to protect these irreplaceable habitats along with the invaluable indigenous knowledge contained therein is paramount to maintaining the opportunity for future discoveries. By investing in the protection and study of these people, places and organisms, we can preserve the beauty of the natural world, and deepen our knowledge of psychedelics and begin to harness their true potential.

David Blackbourn | Community Blogger at Chemical Collective

David is one of our community bloggers here at Chemical Collective. If you’re interested in joining our blogging team and getting paid to write about subjects you’re passionate about, please reach out to David via email at blog@chemical-collective.com

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7 days ago

Qué psicodelicos me recomendáis aparte de los ya conocidos?

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