On the 18th of November, the British Mycological Society Autumn open meeting was held at Kew Gardens, organised by Kew Honorary Research Associate Martin Bidartondo. Eight speakers including taxonomists, ecologists, plant pathologists, students and citizen scientists shared their experiences working on fungi with the 65 audience members. In a first for Kew, online live-captioning made the meeting available for the hearing impaired - typed at 200 words a minute!
During the morning session, we learned that studies of fungal fruiting bodies (such as mushrooms) need to include both morphology (structure) as well as DNA analyses to identify species; our understanding of difficult to identify but common European mushrooms like milkcaps, poisonpies and truffles can be unlocked with this approach. The meeting also highlighted that more accurate identification of fungal species is possible using multiple-gene trees of fruiting bodies and/or mycorrhizas (fungal roots) coupled with taxonomic expertise and databases, than increasingly popular meta-barcoding analyses where vast numbers of short DNA sequences are generated from environmental samples like soil.
We also learned how early plants utilised unexpectedly diverse relationships with fungi when colonizing land, and that these relationships are still essential for living land plants.
The meeting also discussed how climate change is predicted to cause massive global forest loss and migration of forest biomes, in addition to impacting the relationship of plants with fungi. In Britain, many of our 15,000 fungal species are threatened by habitat loss and change but they continue to have a low profile in national and international nature conservation policy and strategy. Studies of fungal fruiting bodies above-ground and mycorrhizas below ground are needed to identify species, characterize fungal diversity, and assess the impact of local and global changes that might threaten fungi.
Plant disease was also discussed; the destructive fungus-like pathogen Phytophthora ramorum was detected in Europe in the early nineties and is still damaging plants such as conifers and broadleaf trees.
A final open debate session concluded that collaborations between professional and citizen scientists are overcoming the huge taxonomic obstacles to understanding fungi for the present and the future in Europe. Efforts to facilitate such collaborations are urgently required in the UK.
Dr. Laura Martinez Suz and Dr. Martin Bidartondo, RBG Kew