18 May 2017
Meet the mycologist: Lee Davies
Find out what Kew’s mycologists are working on in this special Friends Week Q&A. Today, Lee Davies tells us how specimens are stored in Kew's Fungarium, and just how tall prehistoric mushrooms were!
What is your job title and role at Kew?
I’m Lee Davies and I work as a Fungarium Curator. I look after the Fungarium at Kew, and in particular the non-British fungi collections.
What’s your favourite fungi fact?
Around 400 million years ago, there was a fungus called Prototaxites which produced a mushroom eight metres tall and one metre in diameter.
Are fungi and mushrooms the same thing?
Sort of. Fungi are a whole kingdom of organisms (like the kingdoms of plants and of animals). Mushroom is a term for an umbrella-shaped fruiting body produced by some of the fungi (primarily the group called the Basidiomycetes).
Not all fungi produce a typical mushroom-like fruiting body. Toadstool is a different name for the same structure, though toadstools tend to be thought of as poisonous whereas mushrooms tend to be seen as the edible ones. The differentiation isn’t that simple of course.
Why do you think fungi are so important?
The more we discover, the more we learn that fungi really are the foundation upon which a healthy ecosystem is based. They are essential to the growth and success of most plants, and without them nutrients would not be able to be cycled back into the ecosystem. If the global ecosystem is a cruise liner; plants are the crew, animals the passengers and the hard work below deck is done by the fungi.
How are fungi preserved in the Fungarium?
The main thing is to dry them out. Ideally the drying process happens as soon as possible after picking them. Most specimens need about 24 hours in a dryer, and a further 24 hours to ‘settle’ at normal room temperature and humidity. Then we freeze them for three days to ensure no pests get into the Fungarium, before adding their details to the database, packing them into a card envelope, and then finally filing them away alongside the rest of their species.
This simple process alone ensures they should last for well over 100 years in the Fungarium, maybe a lot longer.
What are some of the uses of fungi?
Fungi provide fundamental products including foods, medicines, and enzymes important to industry. For example, they are used in the production of beer, wine, cheese, statins, antibiotics and anti-rejection drugs for organ transplant patients. There are also possible future uses currently under research, such as new drugs derived from fungi, a new leather-like material and a possible alternative to polystyrene packaging.
There is also a very long history of the cultural uses of hallucinogenic fungi, such as fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) and magic mushrooms (Psilocybe species). Some recent studies have shown that active compounds in Psilocybe have potential uses in treating mental health issues.
Kew Friends Week
This Q&A was written especially for Kew Friends Week. During Friends Week, we celebrate our Friends' invaluable support to both the Gardens and Kew's vital science and conservation work, with a week of exciting content and activities exclusively for Friends of Kew.