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UF/IFAS researcher helps to unravel mysteries of fungi biodiversity

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Scientists have long tracked the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies, studied the longevity of the redwoods and know how the melting of the ice caps is affecting polar bears. But, until now, it has been difficult to keep tabs on the poor, humble fungi – another of the world’s lesser-known, yet diverse groups of multicellular living creatures. And new research shows there could be a new variety living in your backyard.

Fungi ­─ including mushrooms, yeast, truffles and molds ─ play fundamental ecological roles as decomposers, or symbiotic partners or pathogens of plants or animals. They can also be used to create new medicines, food additives or even fuel. Fungi in the wild are important because they drive carbon cycling in forest soils, mediate mineral nutrition of plants and alleviate carbon limitations of other soil organisms.

Breakthroughs in DNA technology are allowing researchers like the University of Florida’s Matthew E. Smith to document roughly 100,000 species of soil fungi, some of them newly discovered during this research. Smith is an assistant professor of plant pathology and curator of the fungal herbarium with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. He was a co-author of a study on the topic of fungal biodiversity, led by Leho Tedersoo from the Natural History Museum in Tartu, Estonia, and published in November in the journal Science.

Smith and his colleagues collected close to 15,000 soil samples from 365 sites around the world. Before their study, about 100,000 species of fungi had been described based on traditional taxonomic methods, but total species estimates ranged from 500,000 to 5 million.

“We also found several groups of sequences that are clearly from fungi and are found at several sites but their DNA sequences do not correspond to any known fungal group,” Smith said. “This suggests that there are still fungal groups that either have not been discovered or have not been studied using modern DNA-based approaches. You are very unlikely to find a new species of plant, animal or insect, but our studies suggest that there are literally hundreds of undescribed fungal species in our own backyards that still need to be studied.”

Smith said new fungi could produce useful medicinal compounds. In the past, Penicillium chrysogenum mold was used to create the antibiotic penicillian. All statin drugs come from fungi, as do immune suppressants that are vital for organ transplants.  New fungi could also be used for the creation of biofuel, lipid and enzyme production. Some species of fungi that are common in soil have been used in the past through fermentation procedures to create lactic acid, polyunsaturated fatty acids and ethanol.

Smith explained that, although both fungi and plants become more diverse as you move toward the equator, fungi are much more diverse than plants as you move toward the poles. For example, high-latitude forests support few tree and understory plant species, yet fungal diversity is high, as found within a forest near Uppsala, central Sweden. And so Earth’s climate, rather than plant diversity, represents the strongest influence on global patterns of fungus distribution.

“We have pretty good ideas about the broad scale distribution of major plant and animal groups across the globe but fungi have been a challenge in the past, mostly because they are microscopic organism, and because the species are often very difficult to tell apart from one another,” Smith said. “The new techniques in DNA sequencing allowed us in this study to look at broad-scale patterns of fungal diversity in soil across the entire globe.”

Fungi

Fungi can be found most anywhere.