Page last updated at 11:52 GMT, Thursday, 27 November 2008

Fears over fungi expert demise

By Sarah Mukherjee
Environment correspondent, BBC News

Some rare fungi have been appearing this year
Britain is running out of taxonomic mycologists - experts in fungi. There were 32 in the 1990s, but just eight now.

Scientists say we should be worried as, without a British research base, other countries could stand to make lucrative fungi-based discoveries in everything from medicine to engineering.

If you should find yourself walking in woodland in the next couple of weeks, you may well discover why experts are saying it's been an exceptional year for British fungi.

Mushrooms and toadstools love cool, wet summers, and the rare and the beautiful have been popping up all over the country this autumn as a result - golden bootleg in Aberdeenshire, truffles in Nottinghamshire and waxcaps in Wales.

Some have never been seen in this country before, and that is proof, say the conservationists, of how little we know about our nation's fungi.

Fungi's role

Paul Cannon knows more than most, he's a British taxonomic mycologist, rarer now than many of the species he studies.

But as we walk through the woods of Surrey hunting for fungi on a clear day, it's clear his enthusiasm for the subject has not dimmed.

"We tend to think of mushrooms on toast or yeast in bread or beer, but they do so much more for us than that," he says.

"Fungi make plant roots work. If it wasn't for fungi, plants would not be able to extract nutrients from the soil. So no fungi, no plants. And no plants, no us."

Some mycologists believe studying fungi is just not glamorous enough for today's biology students, who want to pursue disciplines with words like "nuclear" and "molecular", in laboratories with expensive computers, rather than going to fields and woods collecting samples which you then study through a microscope.

But according to Dr Trevor Nicholls, chief executive of the CABI research institute in Oxfordshire, our national mycological research base could collapse in the very near future.

"There is a danger that it could dry up altogether, it really is a worry," he says.

"We have, for example, no expertise in this country in some of the diseases of wheat and rice, that are caused by fungi, that could have a major impact on food security."

Action needed

Aircraft maintenance does not seem an obvious area where applications for mycology can be found.

But Joan Kelley, the executive director of bioservices at the CABI Institute, shows a sample of aircraft fuel, covered with a thick glutinous mat of mould that glories in the name Hormoconis resinae.

Not only can the mould break off and block up fuel pipes, it excretes a corrosive substance which can damage the tanks themselves.

She was the person who developed the test now used across the industry, to alert airlines to the mould's presence.

She has no doubt about the importance of the role the taxonomic mycologists played.

She says: "Yes, we do molecular biology here, but you need the mycologists to tie everything together."

A few solutions to the mycologist droughts have been suggested - producing education material for schoolchildren, for example, or developing university courses in mycology.

But unless we act soon, scientists say, British taxonomic mycologists will be a thing of the past.

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