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Fungi, the world’s most essential organisms

Fungi
Fungi
“Many people consider that they can confidently identify the orange chanterelles for eating, but I have met many collecting the false chanterelle in the belief it was the true one. Very fortunately the false one is not toxic, otherwise there would be a lot more problems with fungal poisonings in Scotland than there is”

For many people fungi are simply the edible mushrooms that appear on your dinner plate or the toadstool you pass by in your local park, however fungi are some of the planets most vital organisms. They provide powerful medicines including antibiotics, regulate many processes in soils and provide society with numerous food staples. So why is so little known about them?

UK Fungus Day which was held over the weekend of the 6th and 7th of October aimed to celebrate all that was good with fungi. With experts estimating there to be around 15,000 types of fungi in the UK and 2-5 million species worldwide, there is a lot to learn.

Like plants and animals, fungi belong to their very own kingdom. Although traditionally regarded as being closer to plants, they are in fact more similar to animals; they are incapable of producing their own food as plants do through photosynthesis. Fungi are just like us in that they require an external food source, which they typically acquire by absorption. They predate humans by hundreds of millions of years so are incredibly resilient.

Despite their extraordinary impact, scientists are still largely ignorant of the true diversity of fungi on Earth. For all the environmental benefits that they provide, fungi also have a much darker side, with the ability to destroy plants, trees and crops as well as poisoning both animals and humans through the production of some very potent ‘mycotoxins’. The key to collecting and eating wild fungi is accurate identification – something that can be very difficult to achieve without experience.

The research of Dr Andy Taylor, a fungal ecologist from the Institute’s Ecological Sciences group, focuses on the roles of fungi in the environment. In particular mutualistic soil fungi that are essential for the healthy growth of most terrestrial plant species. A key aspect of his work is the detection and identification of fungi in environmental samples. His varied research topics mirror the diversity of fungi as a group and the many functional roles that they carry out in most ecosystems.

Even those species that produce visible structures above ground can present considerable problems for identification, a significant part of the research is focused on the development and use of molecular tools for accurate species identifications. These tools are also used to examine spatial structuring of populations and communities at both local and continental scales.

Dr Taylor leads fungi forays across the grounds of the Institute in Aberdeen, with a view to informing the public about the importance of fungi in the environment and the dangers of misidentifying it. He warns: “Many people consider that they can confidently identify the orange chanterelles for eating, but I have met many collecting the false chanterelle in the belief it was the true one. Very fortunately the false one is not toxic, otherwise there would be a lot more problems with fungal poisonings in Scotland than there is.”

Dr Taylor is a board member of the UNITE database, which was set up to create a reliable DNA sequence database for fungi. UNITE includes high-quality sequences obtained from expertly-identified fungi. The reference sequences act as identification ‘barcodes’ that can be used to identify unknown sequences derived from environmental samples with a high degree of confidence. The UNITE database has become a global one-stop shop for dealing with all fungal sequence data from environmental samples. 

More information from: 

Adam Walker, Communications Officer, Tel:01224 395095 (direct line), +44 (0)344 928 5428 (switchboard).


Printed from /news/fungi-world%E2%80%99s-most-essential-organisms on 20/11/18 01:47:46 AM

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.