The Kew Mycology Team focuses on the systematics, conservation, and ecology of Fungi. Systematic and conservation activities primarily involve mushrooms and allies (Agaricomycotina:Basidiomycota) and Ascomycota (including lichens), while ecology research is concentrated on mycorrhizal symbiosis and insect-fungus associations.
Fungi are unique organisms that are placed in their own Kingdom and are quite distinct from animals and plants. They are a huge and immensely diverse group, of inestimable ecological and economic significance. They are the primary agents of decay and nutrient recycling worldwide, play key roles as mycorrhizal partners essential to the development and health of almost all vascular plants, and have enormous numbers of other essential partnerships and associations with living organisms from all other kingdoms of life. Yet fungi remain vastly under-studied compared to plants, and their conservation is rarely considered. We don’t even know what we have: although there exists a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the vascular plants of most regions and a host of regional floras and monographs has been published, as yet most of the world has not been surveyed for fungi in any scientifically meaningful sense. Very few modern mycotas or monographs exist and even better-known areas, including the British Isles, lack comprehensive modern checklists. Identification of collections commonly poses severe difficulties even to the few specialists available, and the discovery of species new to science is commonplace.
Understanding the basic units of fungal diversity is the essential starting point for all other research on the group. Around 100,000 species have so far been described, most of which are still poorly known, yet it is estimated that total numbers are far greater and that over 90% of fungal species still await description.
RBG Kew is one of the key international centres for the study of fungal diversity. Research by the Mycology team is underpinned by the 1.25 million specimens in the Kew fungarium, the most extensive such collections worldwide. Our work involves morphological and molecular phylogenetic analysis, the end products of which include monographic studies, checklists, local and regional mycotas (the fungal equivalent of floras), updated phylogenetic classification, and improved knowledge of ecological and evolutionary patterns and processes. Kew Mycology also has a vital role in identifying material relevant to mushroom poisonings, via enquiries received from medical consultants and other hospital staff. DNA barcoding, the identification of unique diagnostic DNA sequences for fungal species, is a key output from our collections-based research, and Kew is a key player in this area. The need for user-friendly keys, checklists, and descriptive data remains a major concern worldwide, and Kew provides these products for non-specialists, both in paper form and on the Internet as e-mycology initiatives. Kew is the only British institution with the resources to support such research at a global scale.
Kew’s work in mycology goes far beyond cataloguing fungal diversity, with a strong focus on conservation, evolutionary biology, fungus-plant and fungus-insect interactions and sustainability. Some of this work is carried out in partnership with external organizations through joint staff positions and secondment.
Historically, conservation policy and management has almost completely ignored the Fungi, despite their pivotal role in ecosystem function. Kew is helping to redress this balance, through employment of a fungal conservation specialist funded jointly with Natural England, and systematic research on fungi of conservation concern including the stipitate hydnoid (“tooth”) fungi, waxcaps and earthtongues. It works closely with volunteer recording groups, which are essential for monitoring species and detecting trends in distribution in our changing world. Through these projects, networking with external partners, and through organizing topical symposia, Kew is taking a foundational role in the nascent field of fungal conservation science.
Fungi are important in their own right, but their partnerships with other organisms are critical for maintenance of life on Earth and enormously significant for humankind. The study of their interactions, beneficial or deleterious, is therefore a major priority for Kew Mycology. Mycorrhizal associations with plants are crucial to ecosystem health, and in all probability land plants could not have evolved without partnering fungi. Kew scientists study ectomycorrhizal fungi associated with trees in both temperate and tropical ecosystems, from evolutionary and ecological perspectives. Orchids depend on mycorrhizal fungi for seed germination, establishment, and sometimes throughout their adult lives, and these fungus-plant interactions are also an important area of research. The early evolution of mycorrhizal relationships is also of interest, with a developing area of study focused on the partnerships between fungi and lower plants.
Fungal parasites of plants are an important focal area also. Some cause major losses in crop and ornamental plants, especially where they are grown in monoculture far from their centre of evolution. Their rapid detection and identification is critical to farmer livelihoods and safe world trade, and Kew therefore partners with CABI to provide support to these areas of applied science. Fungus-insect interactions are of economic and evolutionary significance also and Kew has several ongoing projects focusing on this area. For example, Kew Mycology has projects investigating the sustainable harvest of insect-parasitic fungi that are prized in traditional Chinese medicine, coevolution of fungus-farming ants and their cultivars, and the ecology and evolution of a remarkable case of fungal mimicry by orchids.
Kew plays a major part in supporting citizen fungal science in the UK and beyond, on a national level via the field mycology community, and on a local and regional level through advice to landowners, natural history societies, local fungus groups etc. Partnerships between mycologists and others, whether specialist or lay people, public or private institutions, are as important as the associations between the fungi themselves and their plant and animal partners.