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Fascinating Forest Fungi

November 2014: Fascinating Forest Fungi

Neither animal nor plant, fungi are literally in a Kingdom of their own, and it’s a big Kingdom. There are an estimated 1-6 million species of fungi, and only 400,000 have names.Their habitat stretches from forests to deserts and from Antarctica to human beings. Fungi can be big enough to grill and too small to see with the naked eye. Some are stunningly beautiful; others get names like “Dead Man’s Fingers” for a reason.

Fungi are critical to forests because they contribute to decay, reforestation and other processes. They are just as critical to people. Fungi are essential to the production of life-saving drugs, including penicillin, cholesterol-lowering statins and the immunosuppresant ciclosporins, which made organ transplants possible. They are also needed for the production of quality of life products like chocolate, beer and specialty cheeses, such as brie and gorgonzola.

This month, we feature a scientist, a product, a partnership and research that shine a light on the fascinating world of fungi.

Environmental Education Link

[image:] Cover of Natural Inquirer The Morel of the StoryThe Natural Inquirer, a middle school science education journal, focuses on mushrooms in The Morel of the Story.

Featured Scientist

Shiv Hiremath

Shiv HiremathTrees have many defenses against insects and diseases but when these insects and diseases arrive from other countries the pace of destruction can far outstrip a tree’s ability to develop resistance.

Such was the case with chestnut blight, an invasive fungus that arrived in the U.S. in 1904 and virtually eliminated American chestnut, once the third most dominant tree in eastern United States forests. Using ectomycorrhizal fungi, Research Biologist Shiv Hiremath is helping to restore the American chestnut and at the same time reforest reclaimed mined lands.

Hiremath focuses on ectomycorrhizal fungi, or fungi that interact with tree roots and provide nutrient support and protection from abnormally harsh conditions. In addition, he is working on improving these symbiotic fungi by genetically altering them. He plans to introduce “value-added” genes into these fungi that would make them more effective in enhancing tree survival and growth by strengthening the tree’s resistance to insect pests, and also alleviating effects due to acidity and heavy metal pollution in the soil.

For example, it is possible to express a gene that enables the fungi to produce citric acid around the roots. Citric acid interacts with heavy metals and prevents them being taken up by the plant roots. Thus, the fungi can function like a sieve and protect the plant from heavy metal pollution caused by mining activity. Or, the modified fungi can protect trees from root-feeding insects through introduced insecticidal genes. “Modified ectomycorrhizal fungi can help protect trees from pests and alleviate stress conditions, and they can do it in a targeted way that does not affect the surrounding environment,” Hiremath said.  

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Featured Product

Field Guide to Macrofungi in Eastern Forests and Their Ecosystem Functions

Hard, woody conk of Fomitopsis pinicola (formerly Fomes pinicola) decaying a dead conifer. 'The red band fungus' Image by M.E. OstryEvocative names like Witches Hat, Turkey Tail and Hedgehog Mushroom might give a novice hope that mushrooms are rich in distinguishing characteristics, but that hope would be quickly extinguished by the quantity and diversity of fungi one might find on even a short walk in the woods.    

Research Plant Pathologist Mike Ostry and his colleagues with the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Health Protection program and the University of Minnesota created a guide specifically for people who want an introduction to the fungi they frequently encounter in the woods, but not their full life story. The “Field Guide to Macrofungi in Eastern Forests and Their Ecosystem Functions” is a quick reference that illustrates and briefly describes some of the most common macrofungi found in aspen-birch, northern hardwood, lowland conifer and upland conifer forests in the Midwest and Northeast.

Macrofungi are fungi with large fleshy or hard fruit bodies (structures producing spores) such as mushrooms, brackets or conks found on the ground and on living or dead trees. They serve many vital ecosystem functions such as aiding tree growth, decaying litter and wood, causing tree diseases and providing wildlife habitat and food. Some are highly edible and sought out by people experienced in mushroom identification.

Published in 2011, demand for the Field Guide has continued to be strong. An e-book version of the Field Guide is expected to be available in the next few months.

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Featured Research

1,000 Fungal Genome Project

Species basket, all were collected within a circular plot with a 24 ft diameter.An 82-year-old collection of fungal cultures and scientists with the U.S. Forest Service are part of a team funded by the Department of Energy that is working to increase our knowledge of the vast but little known fungal kingdom.

In 2011, the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute began the “1000 Fungal Genomes” project to sequence two species from every known fungal family. The project is a first step in creating an encyclopedia of all fungi that will one day help researchers understand not only what fungi do in ecosystems, but exactly how they do it.

Research Plant Pathologist Dan Lindner of the NRS is one of 13 scientists participating in the project, which received funding through the Department of Energy's 2012 Community Sequencing Program. "Fungi are so important in so many ways, and we have so much to learn about them," Lindner said. "We only know the tip of the iceberg."

The U.S. Forest Service’s Center for Forest Mycology Research in Madison, Wis., is providing approximately 200 of the 1,000 fungal isolates that will be sequenced, with the remaining 800 species provided by other major culture collections from around the world. Established in 1932, the Center’s culture collection includes 20,000 cultures from 1,600 species of fungi.

The 1000 Fungal Genomes project involves an international team of researchers lead by Oregon State University scientist Joseph Spatafora. Team members include Lindner, scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and scientists from universities in the United States, the Netherlands, and France.

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Featured Partnership

Hygrophoraceae Revisited

With help from amateurs, a diverse group of experts revised a fungal family

Taxonomy is more than giving a species a name; it identifies a biological organism’s place in the world by establishing its Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. Each of these levels of classification carries information about the likely ecology and characteristics of the fungi.  An unknown species is classified based on the characters and behavior it shares with its closest relatives – information such as whether it is likely to be beneficial or damaging to trees.

Technology such as DNA sequencing is revealing thousands of species without names, and also that some established names have been used for the wrong species or genus – causing confusion regarding the fungus’ ecology as well as its identity.

This year, the work of a partnership led by Forest Service Botanist D. Jean Lodge resulted in revision of the fungal family Hygrophoraceae. The partners’ diverse affiliations, expertise and geography – members included 34 para-professional and professional mycologists from 11 nations and benefited from the help of amateur mycologists – were essential to achieving a revision that would be adopted by a variety of user groups. Exploring the highly diverse Hygrophoraceae family required experts on each of the groups and aspects of Hygrophoraceae, such as ecology, pigment chemistry, and DNA analysis.  

Found throughout the world, Hygrophoraceae includes mushrooms known as wax-caps, some of which form beneficial relationships with tree roots, some of which combine with algae to form lichens, and some of which are brightly colored mushrooms on decaying wood. “Hygrophoraceae is so diverse that there are no experts on the entire family,” Lodge said. 

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