Just one try and some become addicted. They’re smuggled through airports and often counterfeited. According to a recent study, there may be one more way black truffles are similar to drugs. Researchers in Italy have found that black truffles produce anandamide, a natural chemical similar to marijuana’s active compound, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

One of the study’s contributors, Mauro Maccarrone, is a biochemistry professor at the Campus Bio-Medico University. He explained that the idea came from previous research he conducted with colleagues on the process of melanin synthesis. “To make it short, we found that there is a correlation between the lipid signals, the endocannabinoids, and the amount of melanin and that these impacted or correlated somehow with the maturation stage of truffles. But unlike human skin, truffles did not have the receptors for endocannabinoids. These receptors are important for a number of activities of the endocannabinoids.”

“So we were interested in these unexpected findings--truffles have the signals, they have the machinery, the enzymes that build up the signals or destroy them but do not have the targets and we started to think of a possible explanation for that and we just proposed something that is in a way fascinating,” Maccarrone tells me.

The researchers proposed that anandamides are present in truffles not only to control melanin synthesis--they may have an additional function. Since their tests demonstrated that truffles lack the receptors that anandamides bind to, they believe it may have evolved as an ancient signal that makes truffle eating animals (who have the receptors for endocannabinoids) search for them. When they sniff them out, pigs, dogs, and other truffle eating animals end up in hog heaven from anandamide intoxication, perhaps as a way truffles ensure their spores are spread widely throughout the environment, thereby improving their chances of reproduction.

The researchers also note that many animals involved in truffle spore dispersal possess cannabinoid receptors, supporting their theory that anandamides have a role in attracting truffle eaters. Maccarrone adds, “In general, what I find very interesting is that truffles are much older than cannabis.” A recent study estimated the genus Tuber’s molecular dating towards the end of the Jurassic period, nearly 156 million years ago. By contrast, cannabis is believed to date back to only 76-107 million years ago.

Although truffles may be older than cannabis, the research on the anandamides they contain is fairly new. They weren’t discovered until 1992 by a team led by Raphael Mechoulam, the organic chemist who had isolated THC twenty eight years earlier. Maccarrone explains that THC’s effect on humans is accidental. It finds receptors that are present for the endocannabinoids like anandamides, which are the amides of “inner bliss”. The anandamide is a member of the larger family of compounds called endocannabinoids and is implicated in many pathophysiological roles like depression, anxiety, and the control of eating and eating disorders like anorexia.

The researchers hope to compare their findings with the chemical profiles of other truffle varieties. Maccarrone says the team has an additional goal, “What would be really fascinating--not so easy to do but possible--and we are working on that, is to really prove that having anandamides helps truffles to be chosen by the truffle eaters and then help the species--the truffle species with anandamides to spread in the environment better than species that might be devoid of anandamides.”

Image Credits: Scott Darbey, Evelyn Simak, Roadnottaken.