The Fungarium houses Kew’s reference collection of fungi which includes an estimated 1.25 million dried specimens. This collection is the largest, and one of the oldest, and most scientifically important in the world. There are samples of fungi from all seven continents, spanning the entire fungal tree of life, representing well over half of known global diversity.
Our oldest specimens date back to the eighteenth century, and we have a rich collection of historically significant material, including fungi collected by John Ray, Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt.
The Kew fungal collections are particularly rich in type specimens: original material that is used to make unequivocal links between the fungus as a living organism and the name applied to it. Recent advances in DNA technologies mean that these types can be sequenced and included in phylogenetic research.
The Fungarium was founded in 1879 with the donation of Rev. Miles J. Berkeley’s personal collection of around 30,000 specimens (including 6,000 type specimens). Numerous other bequests and donations over the years have greatly enhanced the collection, alongside many specimens collected by Kew staff from all corners of the globe. In 2007, the International Mycological Institute (IMI) fungarium (owned by CAB International) was housed alongside the Kew collection, adding very substantially to our overall holdings.
The Fungarium holds an estimated 375,000 specimens from the UK, which are designated as the British National Collection of fungi. Collections from other parts of the world focus especially on historically significant collectors from the nineteenth century. Reflecting the research interests of Kew mycologists over the years, the Fungarium contains particularly important collections of dried mushrooms and toadstools, and the IMI samples are especially significant for tropical plant pathogens.
All of the label information has been databased for incoming specimens since 1997, and basic data are available for the entire IMI collection. Label data for around half of the combined collections can now be searched online.
Kew’s Fungarium is a highly significant cultural resource in itself, but it is much more than a museum exhibit. It has five main scientific purposes:
1. It is a source of data for ecological, biogeographical and conservation research. The collections (and especially the data associated with them) can be used to help understand distributions, plant/fungus interactions, fruiting period and rarity – among many other branches of biology.
2. The Fungarium allows scientists to compare new samples with existing collections, making identification activities more robust, and making it possible to describe previously unknown species. We believe that fewer than 10% of the world’s fungi have been discovered to date, and currently species are becoming extinct much more rapidly than they can be described.
3. Our collections provide robust and challengeable evidence of the presence of fungi in particular countries. This is particularly important in the context of world trade, where the presence of crop pests and pathogens can heavily influence decisions over import and export. Millions of GBP can be involved, affecting the livelihoods of farmers and many others in the supply chain. Our national food security depends on effective detection and identification of species that threaten crops.
4. The Fungarium provides historical context to the presence of fungi. We can examine changes in distribution over time, charting the impacts of climate change and gaining a better understanding of the spread of invasive species, and their effects on native populations. We can also re-sample specimens to assign them to newly recognised species following their original accession.
5. Recent advances in molecular biology mean that the DNA of historical collections is now accessible. This is immensely important for research into relationships, but also means that specimens collected decades or even centuries ago can be examined for useful characteristics. These might include novel metabolic pathways leading to the discovery of new antibiotics, traits such as heat or cold tolerance, or factors affecting mycorrhizal relationships (between fungi and plant roots). We have very little baseline data regarding extinction rates in fungi, but habitat destruction over the past century means that hundreds of species in the Kew Fungarium may no longer exist in the wild. Even if species are extinct in the wild, we can mine their collections for useful genes.
The Fungarium is an irreplaceable resource for Kew’s scientists. It features prominently in a range of research projects, including:
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Surrey TW9 3DS
9am to 5.30pm Monday to Thursday
9am to 5pm Friday
Closed weekends and public holidays