What state is the world’s fungi in?
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” John Muir
This year saw the first ever State of the World’s Fungi report and Symposium at Kew Gardens. For many years, Kew has published a State of the World’s Plants report but for the first time it was fungi in the spotlight.
Joining both amateur and expert mycologists from across the world were Eilidh Dunnet from the Edinburgh Science Festival and Diana Powell from Feed Bristol; two Grow Wilders that have been particular fans of fungi this year. Here we share what they each got from the event.
I started out as a fan of fungi; I've always enjoyed foraging for chanterelles in secret spots in Perthshire woodlands that my father has scouted out over the years, and I've recently discovered the thrills and challenges of growing your own fungus through Grow Wild's Team Fungus challenge.
However, I was unprepared for the level of appreciation and respect I would gain for fungi after attending the State of the World's Fungi Symposium. I now view fungi in a completely new light; while I was a casual fan before I now count myself a fervent supporter!
There are three big revelations that truly cemented my belief in the importance of fungi:
The enormity of the fungi kingdom
The first is the sheer scale of the fungi kingdom and the fact that it is just that - a kingdom of its own quite unique from plants and animals. One of the first facts I heard at the symposium is that the fungi kingdom is thought to include over 3 million species! This kind of figure is quite hard to get your head around and means little out of context. So, I looked up how many species of trees and birds we think exist on the planet and was stunned to discover there are thought to be 60,000 species of tree and only 10,000 bird species, meaning that for every type of bird we know there are 300 different fungi. This was my first inkling that we are seriously undervaluing fungi.
The many roles that fungi take
The second step on my journey to fungi devotee came through learning about the myriad roles that fungi play both in the natural world and in the products they contribute to (everything from beer and bread to immunosuppressant drugs). We all learn in school about the important role that fungi play as decomposers of the forest floor, but we hear less about the 90% of plants that can only survive due to a symbiotic relationship with the fungi that live on their roots. I was starting to realise that fungi seem to play a crucial role in the functioning of the entire planet.
There’s still so much more to learn
The final thing that turned me into a true supporter of the fungal cause was realising that despite their abundance and importance there is still so much that we don't know about them. Of those 3 million species of fungi only a tiny 5% have been identified and named. Across the 2 days of the symposium I heard from some of the world's leading mycologists and almost all of them emphasised how much more work was needed to understand their particular area of speciality, many more questions than answers were presented. I was struck by this injustice and suddenly wanted to stand on the rooftops and shout out to the world about the importance of fungi and fungal research!
Fungi thrive in dark and hidden spaces. but now I truly believed it is time to bring them out into the light and get to know this fundamental part of our world.
Kew’s Head of Science, Kathy Willis began the Symposium by reminding us of the extraordinary nature of fungi: their beauty, diversity and status as a distinct kingdom like no other; their vital importance to all life on the planet as symbiotic partners with plants, nutrient recyclers, sources of nutritious food, vital medicines and rich cultural folklore. She also acknowledged the difficulties of studying something which is often hidden in soil and wood.
The negative association with death and decay have also contributed to our having overlooked fungi for a long time, they were initially categorised as lower or primitive plants, when in fact fungi are more closely related to animals.
Monitoring and conservation of fungi worldwide
There was much discussion about the importance of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red Lists (a comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of plant and animal species). There is huge disparity between conservation of animals and plants, and that of fungi, despite the fact they face the same level of threat.
The first red list was produced in the 1960s, but fungi were not included until four decades later. Only a handful of countries worldwide have robust surveying and red list systems in place for fungi and sadly the UK is not among them. There’s still a lot of work to be done, with an estimated 2 million plus fungi yet to be described. This served to underline the vital role of citizen science in data collection, a theme throughout the symposium. If we don’t have data on it, we can’t and won’t protect it.
The role of governments
Giuliana Furci of Chile showed us how sustained lobbying of government can be powerful even in a country without strong fungi traditions or large mycological /scientific community. Her team of 6 lobbied every day for 2 years: communicating to their government about the vital economic importance of conserving fungi. As she put it, “Communicating in the language government understands – money.”
Mycological surveying is now enshrined in Chilean law, and any new development must now include searches for fungi alongside plants and animals. This top down approach has had enormous positive repercussions marking a cultural shift. The NGO she founded, The Fungi Foundation, is now developing an education program that will embed understanding and respect for fungi in public awareness for the future. The Fungi Foundation is an excellent model for the conservation community as a whole about the value of getting the law on your side.
Are some fungi harmful, or have we made them that way?
A contentious first session on day two was entitled “Do fungi provide a greater ecosystem service or disservice?” Two lectures that particularly stood out were by Dr Diane Saunders and Dr Romina Gazis, both researching pathogenic fungi and both eloquently acknowledging how human interventions in the natural world (primarily agriculture & industry) have created the conditions in which pathogens can flourish.
Dr Saunder’s research on wheat rust has uncovered that part of this organism’s life cycle involves the wild barberry – the sole food plant in the UK of a protected moth. At the same time, Dr Gazis was working battling pathogens in the intensive horticultural and fruit growing regions of Florida.
I was struck by the pressing need for new scientific discoveries to inform public policy and agricultural practice. But this rarely happens. The scientific community is often simply asked to find new technologies that will allow us to continue with our destructive practices.
Fungal symbioses are a powerful reminder of the connectedness of all things.
I’ve certainly been inspired to learn more about the strange and beautiful world of fungi. I also want to get involved in vital survey work. Most of all, I see how important it is that as many people as possible, across diverse fields of expertise, develop an understanding of ecology and how human activities are affecting the biosphere so that we can all work together to conserve it.