19 October 2023

Why saving fungi matters.

There’s an amazing world of fungi out there, but do we care for it enough? Fungi have got our back, now it’s time to return the favour.

A headshot of Ben Evans
Dr Ester  Gaya pic

By Ben Evans and Dr Ester Gaya

Fungi mushrooming near a leaf

The State of the World’s Plants and Fungi 2023 report highlights some massive stats about the current situation for fungi. 

A new estimate of 2.5 million species confirms Fungi as the second largest kingdom of eukaryotes after Animalia. Unfortunately, we have only named 155,000 of them, leaving more than 90% of total fungal diversity still unknown. With 10,200 joining the list of new fungal species since the start of 2020, the pace is picking up, but we need to be faster! 

But why does it matter? Do we appreciate our fungus friends enough already? How could we be doing more for them? 

Dr Ester Gaya, Kew Senior Research Leader in Mycology and recipient of the 2023 Tony Trinci Award, gives us the breakdown. 

a researcher holds a small orange lichen in her hands among a dry flat landscape
Ester Gaya examines a lichen among the dry plains of Namibia © RBG Kew

Why should we care about fungi? 

When I think of the benefits fungi provide for people, the first and most obvious is their role in our healthcare. 

A fungus was the provider of the very first antibiotic, a discovery that has saved countless millions of lives. Fungi have given us statins to keep dangerous levels of cholesterol at bay, as well as new drugs for use in chemotherapy as we try to fight off cancer. Immunosuppressants sourced from a variety of fungus species have made possible every single organ transplant that’s taken place since the first kidney donations decades ago. 

They’re lifesavers in that sense alone, but there’s so much more to them than that. 

I fell in love with fungi because they’re fun! In Spain, my PhD supervisor was the father of modern mycology (the study of fungi). He helped me to discover the extraordinary world of fungi out there. 

A researcher poses for a photo by a lichen covered plant among a grassy landscape
Ester Gaya fell in love with mycology as a PhD student in Spain © Ester Gaya
3D illustration of Penicillium fungi showing spores conidia and conidiophore
3D illustration of a Penicillium fungus showing spores conidia and conidiophore. Penicillium was critical to the discovery of antibiotics© Katerynakon

Once you realise that fungi have this hidden, mysterious way of life, they become a huge puzzle that you never want to put down. 

I’ve seen fungi of all different shapes and sizes adapted to every habitat you can imagine. I mean everything from amazingly varied mushroom-forming fungi, to those that hijack insects to survive, and fungi with invisible networks spreading across entire forests. 

It’s amazing how much there is still to understand. I’ve run DNA studies on species of fungi that look identical and live similar lifestyles, and it has turned out they are not even remotely related to each other. Likewise, I’ve seen closely related species that couldn’t look more different.

They’re completely bizarre, and that fact alone I think should be enough to make us all love them. 

If anyone still isn’t convinced, we should remember that fungi are the bedrock of the world around us. They form key relationships with the plants that we rely on to survive, contribute towards nutrient recycling and carbon sequestration, and support us in ways that we’re uncovering every year. 

A table full of fungi of all different shapes sizes and functions
A British Mycology Society survey around the town of Strathpeffer, Scotland, yields an extraordinary variety of fungi shapes, sizes and lifestyles © Alex Dombrowski

Do we appreciate fungi enough? 

You know, the tide really is turning on this. I’ve found so much to be optimistic about recently! 

Fungi are taking up a bigger and bigger part in our lives, I see it everywhere. The amount of popular literature on fungi has grown exponentially – you can even find fantastic books about fungi for children. That has hugely raised awareness about them. We often get requests from secondary school pupils asking if they can come to volunteer and learn about fungi. Fungarium tours are in high demand.

I walk into pharmacies and there are fungus products on the shelves as medicines or treatments. People are also getting more confident with consuming fungi beyond the classic supermarket button mushroom, and some even grow them at home! 

Cover image of the Fungarium book with different coloured fungi
'Fungarium', edited by Katie Scott and Ester Gaya is one of the modern popular science books bringing fungi in the spotlight © RBG Kew

Here in my scientific world, I’m very hopeful too. Mycology wasn’t so popular when I chose it as a path, but now here at Kew I see a new generation rising up and making achievements of their own. 

Every year more and more MSc students ask me to help them take on projects about fungi. The enthusiasm is really growing! 

Then there are my PhD students, who are my biggest reason for hope! Two of them, Theo and Rowena, have made it through the final stages of their work this year. They’ve produced two groundbreaking projects, one on a group of unique lichens spread across the world, the other on the complex lives of endophytes – microscopic fungi that make their homes inside plants. This is the knowledge on which we can build modern conservation. 

Of course, we still have a long way to go, but this growing knowledge and passion for the fungi world makes me feel so proud. 

An orange lichen growing on a rock
A lichen given its orange tinge by the pigments it produces as protection from the harsh UV radiation of the sun. © RBG Kew
Many petri dishes containing different kinds of cultured fungi
An extraordinary variety of fungal endophytes grown on agar medium at Kew, for a PhD research project. © RBG Kew

How can we look after them better?

The most beautiful example I can think of is in Chile. 

Giuliana Furci is a mycologist and founder of Fundación Fungi (Fungi Foundation) the very first NGO in the world dedicated to the protection of fungi. She took her knowledge to the Chilean government and was successful in bringing fungi into environmental legislation. Fungi are now written in the Chilean law leading to extensive protection in the country – a huge campaign success! 

She is one of the most enthusiastic people I know. A true ambassador for Kingdom Fungi. 

Policymakers have an opportunity to enshrine fungi into legislative protection around the world. Science is building the knowledge to make these decisions easy, and people’s growing love for fungi is making action possible. 

These days, the conservation projects that we're building aim to protect entire ecosystems rather than just individual species, so if the person reading this wants to help fungi, they can! Supporting NGOs and taking action with local conservation communities to protect habitats will benefit the incredible assortment of fungal life hidden in plain sight. Join the British Mycological Society or your local mycology group to get involved. 

Whether they’re helping to restore an old-growth forest or are working to save a diverse grassland, rest assured there are fungal communities that are grateful. 

In science, what we need is to band together and prioritise. The number of mycologists may be growing, but we can speed up our quest to find all the fungi and protect them far faster as a global collaboration, united towards our shared goal. We can also band together as conservationists in planning the protection of animals, plants and fungi together.

There’s absolutely no doubt that saving fungi matters, nor is there any doubt that we CAN save them. Now all we have to do is get there. 

A forest landscape has light shining through gaps in the canopy. Leaf litter covers the floor.

The State of the World's Plants and Fungi Report

Read more about the state of the world's fungi diversity and how we can protect it

Read & watch