Diversity and evolution of Cortinariaceae (Agaricales, Basidiomycota)

Studying the diversity and evolution of this species-rich family and producing a barcoding database of the group.

Cortinariaceae fungi - Blue Cortinarius

Fungi play a significant role in all forest ecosystems. However, the Fungi Kingdom is poorly known and many common macrofungi species are not yet described and named. Consequently very little is known about the composition, distributions and differences in species at the intercontinental level. Understanding fungal diversity on a global scale and being able to reliably identify species is crucial for studying and understanding the role these fungi play in forest ecosystems. Species identification using DNA sequences (barcoding) is essential in the detection of species diversity, particularly in genera of fungi where distinguishing morphological characteristics are few and the number of species is very high.

To produce the highest quality sequence database, taxonomical studies based on thorough knowledge of morphological and molecular methods are required. A barcoding database based on type specimens is essential for ecological, environmental or further taxonomic research. Once completed, it will create a solid base for future studies.

Understanding the evolutionary history of fungi is important. It sets a base for further studies of diverse evolutionary questions. It also provides the means for better understanding the current diversity and distribution of the species.

Cortinariaceae (Agaricales, Basidiomycota) is one of the most diverse families of ectomycorrhizal fungi, containing several thousand species found all over the world. Most Cortinarius species are associated with dominant temperate forest trees, for example pines and spruces (Pinaceae, Pinopsida), birches (Betulaceae, Magnoliopsida), and oaks, beeches, and southern beeches (Fagaceae, Magnolipsida). Recently it was suggested that the species of the largest genus of Cortinariaceae, Cortinarius, may even be key players in the mobilisation of nitrogen from organic matter in northern forest ecosystems. When foraging for nitrogen Cortinarius species also release carbon and may be critically important to carbon cycling in the forests where they occur. Due to its species-richness and global distribution, Cortinariaceae is an ideal model with which to study diverse questions at different levels of evolutionary history.

The project is led by Dr Tuula Niskanen, Early Career Research Fellow in the Department of Identification and Naming.


  • Produce a barcoding database of Cortinariaceae based on sequences from type specimens.
  • Study the global diversity of the family and describe unknown species.
  • Produce a multi-gene phylogeny of the family based on global sampling and genomic data.
Project Leader

Tuula Niskanen

  • The type sequences will be deposited and used to set reference sequences in RefSeq and UNITE. Through these global databases the sequences will be available for everyone and can be widely exploited.
  • Publications of new species.
  • The first well resolved phylogeny of Cortinariaceae as a base to understand the evolution of the family and to study diverse questions at different levels of evolutionary history.


  • Dr Ursula Peintner (University of Insbruck, Austria)


  • Dr Tobias Frøslev (University of Copenhagen, Denmark)
  • Thomas Stjernegaard Jeppesen  (Danish Natural History Museum, Denmark) 


  • Dr Ilkka Kytövuori (University of Helsinki, Finland)


  • Dr Jean-Michel Bellanger (French Institute of Health and Medical Research, France)
  • André Bidaud (France)
  • Patrick Reumaux (France)
  • Xavier Carteret (France)


  • Dr Sigisfredo Garnica (University of Tübingen, Germany)


  • Tor Erik Brandrud (Norwegian Institute for Nature Reserve, Norway)
  • Egil Bendiksen (Norwegian Institute for Nature Reserve, Norway)
  • Katriina Bendiksen (Natural history Museum, Norway)


  • Rafael Mahiques (Spain)
  • Josep Ballarà (Spain)
  • Dr Fernando Esteve-Raventós (University of Alcalá de Henares, Spain)


  • Håkan Lindström (Sweden)


  • Dr Ertuğrul Sesli (Karadeniz Technical University, Turkey)


  • Dr Joseph F. Ammirati (University of Washington, U.S.A.)
  • Dr Bryn Dentinger (University of Utah, U.S.A.)
  • Dr Brandon Matheny (University of Tennessee, U.S.A.)
  • Dr Matthew Smith (University of Florida, U.S.A.)
  • Dr Cathy Cripps (Montana State University, U.S.A.)
  • Dimitar Bojantchev (U.S.A.)

Niskanen T, Liimatainen K, Kytövuori I, Lindström H, Dentinger BTM, Ammirati J (2016)

Cortinarius, subgenus Callistei in North America and Europe – type studies and known diversity and distribution of species

Mycologia (accepted)

Garnica, S., Schön, M.E., Abarenkov, K., Riess, K., Liimatainen, K., Niskanen, T., Dima, B., Soop, K., Frøslev, T.G., Jeppesen, T.S., Peintner, U., Kuhnert, R., Brandrud, T.E., Saar, G., Oertel, B. & Ammirati J.F. (2016)

Determining threshold values for barcoding fungi: Lessons from Cortinarius (Basidiomycota), a highly diverse and widespread ectomycorrhizal genus

FEMS Microbiology Ecology 92(4).

Liimatainen, K., Niskanen, T., Dima, B., Kytövuori, I., Ammirati, J.F. & Frøslev, T. (2014)

The largest type study of Agaricales species to date: bringing identification and nomenclature of Phlegmacium (Cortinarius) into the DNA era

Persoonia 33: 98–140. DOI: 10.3767/003158514X684681

Schoch, C. et al. (including Niskanen, T.) (2014)

Finding needles in haystacks: linking scientific names, reference specimens and molecular data for Fungi

Database 2014: 1–21. DOI: 10.1093/database/bau061

Kõljalg, U. et al. (including Niskanen, T.) (2013)

Towards a unified paradigm for sequence-based identification of Fungi

Molecular Ecology 22(21): 5271–5277. DOI: 10.1111/mec.12481

  • Kew Pilot Project funding
  • Finnish Cultural Foundation