Page last updated at 13:18 GMT, Monday, 12 January 2009

UK fungi get protection strategy

<i>Clitocybe nebularis</i>(Image: RBG Kew)
Conservationists call fungi "the forgotten kingdom"

A strategy to protect the UK's fungi species has been set up by 16 of the nation's leading conservation and research organisations.

They hope to ensure the long-term protection of "the forgotten kingdom" by learning more about the organisms.

It will also bring more than half of the UK's remaining taxonomic mycologists together under one roof.

Experts say that there are up to 15,000 known species in the UK, but many more remain unknown to science.

"Fungi support ecosystems, from woodlands to farmland," explained Jayne Manley from Plantlife UK, one of the organisations involved in the forum.

Specimens collected by Charles Darwin are among the collection

"They are responsible for the intrinsic fertility of the soil, nutrient recycling... and are vital for the health of the planet," she added.

"The fruiting body or 'mushroom' that we see above the ground is simply the tip of the iceberg, with the main part of the fungus hidden below - sometimes covering many kilometres.

"It shocks me that we are still unsure whether the presence of a fruiting body signifies that the organism is healthy or if it is under stress."

Future fungi

Dr Manly said that she believed that the formation of the forum's "groundbreaking strategy" would ensure that knowledge and awareness of fungi would improve.

The strategy outlined a number of objectives, including:

• understanding and documenting fungi

• conserving diversity

• sustainable collection of fungi

• improving public awareness and appreciation of fungi

• ensuring there are more experts in the UK

Part of the strategy involves creating the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of fungi, which will include more than one million specimens.

Fungi collection, RBG Kew (Image: RBG Kew)
The enhanced collection of fungi at Kew Gardens is an important resource for taxonomic research
Lord Hunt
Sustainable Development Minister

The samples will be housed at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBG Kew), which is celebrating its 250th anniversary in 2009.

The decision was taken to merge the collections held by RBG Kew and Cabi, a science-based development and information organisation, in order to improve the future of fungi research in the UK.

"If we do not understand the world of fungi, then our ability to repair and restore damaged habitats is considerably reduced," explained Professor Mark Chase, keeper of the Jodrell Laboratory at RBG Kew.

"There is also great potential in mycology for environmentally friendly biofuels if we can understand and harness the chemicals some fungi produce to decay plant materials."

Two senior research scientists from Cabi will be joining Kew's mycology team, increasing the number of senior scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens who are experts in fungal taxonomy and systematics to five.

There are now fewer than 10 taxonomic mycologists, scientists who identify and name fungi, in the UK.

"Cabi is entrusting its specimen collection to Kew and co-locating staff in order to optimise expertise in fungal systematics," said Dr Joan Kelley, executive director of bioservices at Cabi.

"This collaboration is an important partnership that will bring together both specimen collections in a central location making it easier for the research community to access this resource."

The merger is being supported by a 250,000 grant from the government.

Sustainable Development Minister Lord Hunt said: "The enhanced collection of fungi at Kew Gardens is an important resource for taxonomic research - a scientific discipline which is absolutely fundamental to our understanding of the natural world."

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