7 August 2019

Fungal favourites

From dead man’s fingers to a destroying angel, our scientists reveal which fungi they love the most and why.

By Katie Avis-Riordan

Kew scientists' favourite fungi

Fission yeast (Schizosaccharomyces pombe)

Dr Paul Kersey, Deputy Director of Science (Bioinformatics and Genomics)

'I have a soft spot for the fission yeast, Schizosaccharomyces pombe, the species I worked on when I started my scientific career. 

'Fission yeast doesn’t produce magnificent fruiting bodies; instead it grows as isolated rod-like cells, which elongate and then divide. 

'As with common brewer's yeast, it’s used to make beer. In fact, it was isolated from beer in Africa and named after it – “pombe” is “beer” in Swahili). 

'But its regular cycles of growth and division have made it a model system for cell biology, relevant to both development and disease. For example, there are equivalent mutations that cause abnormal growth in fission yeast and cancer in humans.   

'Sir Paul Nurse, who joins the Kew Board of Trustees in autumn 2019, won his Nobel Prize in large part for his work on understanding the cell cycle by using fission yeast as his object of study.

'Our model of the cell cycle is intellectually elegant, but there’s also something very appealing about the cells under the microscope, especially when they mate and produce spores in a way that provides a perfect physical demonstration of the principles of inheritance by sexual reproduction.'

Microscopic image of fission yeast (Schizosaccharomyces pombe)
Microscopic image of fission yeast (Schizosaccharomyces pombe) © Tiina Tamm/Wikimedia Commons

Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria)

Lee Davies, Fungarium Collections Curator

'My favourite fungus might seem a bit obvious, but it is the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria.

'It’s the fungus everyone knows from childhood with the characteristic red cap and white spots. Aside from looking very attractive it also exemplifies the things I find most interesting about fungi.

'It is a mycorrhizal fungus, meaning it needs to form a symbiotic relationship with a tree for them to survive and thrive.

'The fungal mycelium forms a close link to the tree roots and feeds the tree nutrients and water from the soil. In return, the tree provides the fungus with sugars it has produced from photosynthesis.

'Amanita muscaria has also had a close relationship with humans; it features in centuries-old folklore and tradition around magic, spirits and fairy tales.

'We also have indications that people have been eating the fungus for its hallucinogenic properties for thousands of years for cultural, social and religious purposes, but also probably for fun.'

Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria)
Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) © Onderwijsgek/Wikimedia Commons

Leaf-cutting ant fungus (Leucoagaricus gongylophorus)

Dr Pepijn Kooij, Early Career Research Fellow, Comparative Plant and Fungal Biology

'Ever since I was little, I have been intrigued by leaf-cutting ants.

'At the zoo I used to visit as a kid with my family they had a colony on display with the ants walking through glass tubes carrying their leaves. You could find me staring at these ants busy working.

'The ants don’t actually eat the leaves, they eat a fungus that grows on the leaves. In return, they provide the fungus with protection, a stable food source and way to distribute (the ants bring the fungus to start new colonies).

'This is what we scientists call mutualism. Both the ant and the fungus benefit from living together. Even though these ants are commonly known as fungus-growing ants, I like to think that it is an ant-growing fungus.

'The fungus feeds the ants sugars and lipids to live but also mixes in enzymes that are necessary to digest the plant material. The fungus then (kind of) directs the ants to poo out the enzymes onto the new leaves that they bring.'

Dead man’s fingers (Xylaria polymorpha)

Rowena Hill, PhD student, Comparative Fungal Biology

'I love a crazy name and fungi have some excellent ones. Don’t tell me you aren’t curious to see what a "mealy bigfoot webcap" or a "silky piggyback" looks like.

'One of my favourites is Xylaria polymorpha, which is rather morbidly known as "dead man’s fingers" thanks to the way its long, rounded fruiting bodies extend from the earth and turn black.

'Dead man’s fingers is an example of a saprotroph – a fungus that lives off dead or decaying plants.

'By breaking down organic matter, saprotrophs enable the natural nutrient cycles that all living things rely on.

'Dead man’s fingers is commonly found in woodland across the UK, so makes for a good creepy find when out on walks.'

Dead man’s fingers (Xylaria polymorpha)
Dead man’s fingers (Xylaria polymorpha) © Paffka/Wikimedia Commons

Powdery mildew (Erysiphales)

Dr Oliver Ellingham, LAFF Community Fungal Survey Technician

'The world is full of charismatic and useful fungi. However, our knowledge and awareness of these life forms is limited, to say the least.

'Given time, an introductory mycological text, a hand lens, and a significant amount of luck, we can, and do, uncover parts of the natural world that few have seen before us.

'I feel fortunate to be so familiar with the microscopic beauty that powdery mildews offer. This is a group of almost 1,000 pathogenic species known to infect agriculturally and horticulturally important plants across the globe.

'I am comforted each time my research returns to these powdery pathogens and must stress that disease such as this is not always bad – it can and regularly does impose checks and balances, vital for the maintenance of healthy, natural populations by whittling out those with less natural fitness.

'I am happy to share this with you through one of the stunning line drawings of Tulasne from 1863 (pictured below).

'Interestingly, the spores being ejected from the spore-encasing structure at number 3 are actually those of the mycoparasite Ampelomyces, a pathogen of a pathogen and potential biocontrol powdery mildew.

'Fortunately our understanding of these microscopic structures has progressed in the 150 years since!'

Powdery mildew (Erysiphales)
Powdery mildew (Erysiphales)

Chewing gum lichen (Protoparmeliopsis muralis)

Dr Begoña Aguirre-Hudson, Curator – Mycologist

'My favourite "fungus" is an entire group, the lichens, because they are very resilient. They can live almost anywhere on Earth, even in hot and cold deserts where most organisms will struggle to survive.

'Lichens comprise almost 14% of the known fungal diversity. This is the result of a long-term relationship between fungi and photosynthetic partners, either an alga or a cyanobacteria, and sometimes both.

'I have chosen the chewing gum lichen to represent the group not because of its beauty, but because it represents that resilience. 

'It is found on many rocky surfaces across the world, spreading onto the pavements and concrete of many urban areas, where it is often confused with chewing gum. We can even find it in central London.

'It belongs to the group of lichens that we call "crusts" because they are difficult to remove from the surfaces they grow on. And they are within one of the major divisions of fungi, the ascomycetes.

'Lichens are used as bioindicators of air quality, and their presence and abundance has been correlated with cleaner air.

'However, the chewing gum lichen will probably lose its competitive edge in a cleaner environment. It is important to study the different species more closely in order to be able to understand their role in the environment better.

'Unlike for many other fungi, we can easily distinguish each individual chewing gum lichen, growing radially a few millimetres each year – like the growth rings of a tree.

'We call the main body of the lichen "the thallus". This species has a frilly thallus all around which is pale yellowish-green in colour. 

'In the middle, you may be able to distinguish small circles or crater-like structures with pale brown centres and a pastry-like edge.

'These are the reproductive bodies of the lichen. In some fungi the shape of these reproductive structures are commonly known as "elf cups".'

Chewing gum lichen (Protoparmeliopsis muralis)
Chewing gum lichen (Protoparmeliopsis muralis) © Rudolphous/Wikimedia Commons

Destroying angel (Amanita verna)

Grace Brewer, Phylogenomic Research Assistant

'My favourite fungus would probably be Amanita verna, commonly known as the fool’s mushroom or destroying angel.

'Amanita verna is one of the most beautiful but also most deadly fungi in the world.

'Although this fungus is pure white in colour, people should not be fooled by its angelic appearance. It contains a fatal dose of alpha-Amanitin that causes liver failure if not treated immediately.

'Despite being deadly to humans, Amanita verna is an ectomycorrhizal fungus that forms symbiotic relationships with the roots of trees. It helps the plant be more efficient at accessing water and nutrients by acting as an extension of the root system.

'In return, the fungus receives sugars from the plant. Neither tree nor fungus would be able to thrive without this mutualism. It is because of this that Amanita verna typically occur in woodlands in the springtime in Europe.'

Destroying angel (Amanita verna)
Destroying angel (Amanita verna) © Pieria/Wikimedia Commons
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