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Fungi database develops to shed light into dark corners

Dr Andy Taylor (c) James Hutton Institute
“Initially UNITE fulfilled the needs for a small group of researchers with a common interest in Nordic forests. But now it is used by researchers all over the world in a huge range of ecosystems."

Fungi are immensely important to humanity and the planet we live on. They belong to their own kingdom, provide powerful medicines including antibiotics, regulate many processes in soils and also provide society with numerous food and drink staples. However, in spite of their extraordinary impact, scientists are still largely ignorant of the true diversity of fungi on Earth, with estimates ranging from 5-50 million species.

In 2001, in an attempt to improve upon current available resources, researchers from a group of organisations including the James Hutton Institute set up their own reference database called the User-friendly Nordic ITS Ectomycorrhiza Database (UNITE).

The initial aim behind this initiative was to create a reliable sequence database, which included only high-quality sequences obtained from expertly-identified fungi. Thus these identification ‘barcodes’ could be used to identify unknown sequences derived from environmental samples with a high degree of confidence.

Dr. Andy Taylor, a fungal ecologist at the James Hutton Institute’s Ecological Sciences group and current UNITE board member, said: “Initially UNITE fulfilled the needs for a small group of researchers with a common interest in Nordic forests. But now it is used by researchers all over the world in a huge range of ecosystems. Recently there has been growing interest in using the database in man-made systems as well.”

From its simple origins, the UNITE database has grown to become a global one-stop shop for dealing with all fungal sequence data from environmental samples. At frequent intervals, all available sequence data from international depositories are uploaded automatically into UNITE, screened for quality and then added to the existing data. In this way the database is kept up-to-date at a global scale.

Wherever possible all associated metadata is also captured. This includes information on herbarium, geographical location (with illustrations or photos), ecology, taxonomy, and nomenclature - all of it vital to the interpretation of the results.

On the 10-11th of April, a workshop will be held at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, where leading fungal taxonomists from around the world will gather together to verify and update all information in UNITE associated with fungal species known from the built environment. Participants include researchers from Belgium, Canada, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, The Netherlands, and USA.

Notes to editors:

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation awarded UNITE a grant of £335,000 in 2015, to support the development of tools within UNITE to facilitate fungal identification in the human/built environment. The project based at the University of Aberdeen involves adding tools which can handle the specific terminology associated with the built environment and populating the database with new sequence data from fungi found in this environment.  Identification of this form of fungi is critical as they can create respiratory problems for people exposed to their spores.

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Printed from /news/fungi-database-develops-shed-light-dark-corners on 25/02/24 10:15:20 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.