Monday, 30 December 2013

Fungi, Keystones of Evolution and Earth Processes

 Meeting report, Linnean Society, London, 17 October 2013 

Fungimap folk are well aware of the challenges for a mushroom in a fauna-and-flora-centric world. Along with the trials of rapidly changing environmental conditions on local and global scales, there are also socio-cultural factors of trying to increase public and political awareness of the kingdom Fungi. The Fungimap Conservation Committee and interested individuals are working to improve the profile and conservation of fungi in Australia. One approach is to look at what's happening in fungal conservation elsewhere in the world.

The British Mycological Society, British Lichen Society and Linnean Society of London recently held a meeting, 'Fungi, keystones of evolution and earth processes'. The diverse program aimed to engage a broad audience on the role of fungi in terrestrial evolution; their diversity, interactions and ecological significance; as well as address scientific and political conservation issues. Advancements in molecular taxonomic techniques and the value of fungi in the global economy were also presented.

FIG 1. Ectomycorrhizal pine tree grown in a root
observation chamber on natural soil at the University of Sheffield.
Image © Prof. JR Leake and Dr DP Donnell.
The symposium opened with a journey back in geological time with Jonathan Leake asking us to consider the evolutionary history of fungal-symbioses and the significance of mycorrhiza in driving biogeochemical cycles. 

Bryn Dentinger, head of mycology at the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) Kew, then discussed the difficulty of estimating fungal diversity and the daunting reality that fungal extinction rates likely exceed rates of discovery and description. He also explored the promises and pitfalls of next-generation sequencing, particularly in the context of unseen and cryptic biodiversity.

FIG 2.  A tiny selection of fungal diversity collected from an Ecuadorian cloud forest. Image © Bryn Dentinger

Peter Crittenden and Rebecca Yahr both presented cutting edge lichen research. Peter discussed lichen dominance in boreal-artic environments and their role as principal primary producers in these systems. Rebecca reported on her lichen research on the building materials of pre-industrial English houses, lifting the lid on the huge magnitude of biodiversity losses in the temperate zone before descriptive science had really been born. Paul Cannon and James Wearn from RBG Kew introduced us to the role, significance and exploitation of endophytes, reminding us that almost every leaf in every corner of the world contains endophytic fungi! David Minter gave us a fervent yet worrisome update on the current representation of fungi by various conservation organisations, highlighting the commonplace disregard for and misrepresentation of fungi.

FIG 3. Bow Cottage on the Holnicote Estate, Exmoor Somerset. Thatched roofs like this can hold treasure-troves of pre-industrial materials. Image © Dr Rebecca Yahr

In the evening, truffle expert, Jim Trappe, delivered an interesting exploration of how Australia came to be the centre of global truffle evolution and the curiosities of mammalian mycophagy. Contemplating such evolutionary significances seemed especially apt in the room (according to the commemorative plaque) where Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace first discussed the concept of the origin of species by natural selection. However, apparently this was not the case and neither Darwin nor Wallace were actually present at that historic meeting and their paper was read to the Fellows by Lyell and Hooker. All the same, the historical setting added an interesting dimension to discussions on a kingdom that had yet to be properly recognised or defined in their time. 

FIG 4: Truffle expert Jim Trappe at the Linnean Society.
Image: Alison Pouliot.

Following the conference I visited RBG Kew and the appropriately named Fungarium that houses over 1.2 million specimens. Bryn Dentinger and Begoña Aguirre-Hudson share the formidable task of decrypting 'fungal identity', compounded by the subjectivities of interpretation, hieroglyphics of mycologists' handwriting, and a further dimension introduced by recent molecular approaches.

FIG 5: Fungal specimen collections at the RBG Kew Fungarium. Images: Alison Pouliot

FIG 6:  Fungal sculptures by Tom Hare.
Images: Alison Pouliot

Wandering through the gardens later in the afternoon, I stumbled across a cluster of Craterellus cornucopioides towering an astonishing three metres high! Meanwhile up on the hill, giant Coprinus comatus had begun to deliquesce. These particular specimens were in fact woven from willow by sculptor, Tom Hare. Fungal conservation needs ways to access new advocates and the arts play an important role in increasing the visibility of these often less visible organisms, as well as re-enchanting the fungal world. Hare has arguably captured both an intriguing aesthetic while maintaining a level of morphological accuracy.

The 7th of November marks a century since Alfred Russel Wallace's death. I wonder how this revolutionary naturalist, renowned for his unconventional ideas and interest in both scientific and social issues would tackle the challenges of biodiversity loss in 2013. While fungal conservation issues are inevitably complex, solutions are also likely lie in unconventional and imaginative ideas that incorporate both scientific and social approaches.

*Many images available for use, please contact Alison for details. Thanks to Prof. JR Leake, Dr DP Donnell, Dr Bryn Dentinger and Dr Rebecca Yahr for the use of their images in this blog.

Thanks also to Paul Cannon, David Minter and David Hawksworth for organising the symposium. The full program of talks is available here.

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