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Mushroom ‘tree of life’ constructed

The fungal material came from two sources: specimens held at Purdue University and the vast collection contained at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Using this collection, mycologists have mapped out the key relationships between mushrooms, as well as charting their development over time. Such collections are described as “fungaria.”

The tree was constructed through molecular biological analysis of DNA. The focus was on an order of mushrooms called Agaricales. This phylogenetic order contains most of the mushroom families familiar to those who take walks in parks and woodlands. It includes many edible and poisonous mushrooms, as well as the ‘magic mushrooms’ famed for their hallucinogenic effects. A mushroom is the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus. Mushrooms normally grow above ground on soil or on a food source, such as decaying wood.

The examination of 39 different genomes has revealed more complex suborders and has drawn new interrelationships between the different species studied. This insight has proved to be revealing because biologists do not fully understand the kingdom of fungi compared to the world of plants. This knowledge gap is pretty wide, given that there could be up to 20 times more species of fungi around the world compared with the numbers of plants. Many of these are microscopic with only a few forming mushrooms and toadstools.

In terms of the development of fungi, the research consortium speculates that the earliest fungi were decomposers of living organisms.

This type of work is not only of academic interest. Fungi, in the form of mushrooms, provide food; they also help the environment through the breakdown of waste matter; and some can cause human harm.

The research output has been published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. Carl Linnaeus was the founder of the way that all biological organisms are name, where a first (family) name is followed by a species name. This is termed binomial nomenclature. To take a common fungus – one that appears as black mold – Aspergillus niger. Here “Aspergillus” is the family name and “niger” is the name of the species.

The title of the article is “Tales from the crypt: genome mining from fungarium specimens improves resolution of the mushroom tree of life.”

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