There are few greater pleasures in my life than a walk on a crisp Autumn morning into the medieval city of Norwich and seeing a wonderful emerging troop of Amanita muscaria (the fly agaric) from beneath some mature silver birch trees; their poppy-red caps bursting from a misty veil, evocative of a fairy world just beyond my reach. They never fail me, and mark the point at which I begin to foray in earnest for the strange and beautiful fungi growing in the woods and open grassland.
As a society we have interacted with fungi for thousands of years, as exampled by the mushroom stones of the ancient Mayans (Dobkin de Rios, 1974) and Palaeolithic rock paintings, (Michelot and Melendez-Howell, 2003). We have built up a fascinating folklore (ethnomycology) surrounding these organisms and put them to good use as medicines, dyes, cosmetics, as food and in ritual (Spooner and Roberts, 2005; Dugan, 2008).
Recently a report by the BBC stated that there are only eight mycologists left in Britain (BBC, 2008), this is a somewhat pessimistic view, and one which doesn't accurately reflect the many scientists working on inter disciplinary studies with fungi as animal and plant pathogens and their use as a model organism to understand our own biochemistry and genetics. It is unfortunately true that fungi are not given much room in the undergraduate syllabus, despite their crucial role in the carbon cycle, as mutualistic symbionts, plant pathogens and also their increasing importance as human pathogens.
I want to showcase fungi and their wonderful interactions, life cycles and uses, in the hope that it will inspire more of us to teach fungi to undergraduates and school children in a social as well as a scientific context. I was delighted to receive an education development grant from the Society for General Microbiology (SGM) to capture images and videos of fungi in action. There are many still images and movies available free to download on this website which can be used to illustrate lectures, public talks or projects with school children.
BBC (2008) Fears Over Fungi Expert Demise, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7752103.stm (date accessed 27th November, 2008).
Dobkin de Rios, M (1974), The Influence of Psychotropic Flora and Fauna on Maya Religion. Current Anthropology, 15:2.
Dugan, F, M (2008), Fungi, Folkways and Fairy Tales: Mushrooms & Mildews in Stories, Remedies & Rituals, from Oberon to the Internet. North American Fungi, 3:27, 23-72.
Michelot, D. and Melendez-Howell, L.M (2003), Amanita muscaria: chemistry, biology, toxicology and ethnomycology. Mycology Research, 2, 131-146.
Spooner, B. and Roberts, P (2005). The New Naturalist Library-a survey of British Natural History, Fungi, Eds Corbet, S.A., Walters, S.M., West, R., Streeter, D., Ratcliffe, D.A. HarperCollins Publishers.
I became interested in fungi because of Kay Yeoman's introduction in the first year of my degree. I then enrolled on a module where I was free to investigate nematode trapping fungi: I isolated them from a soil environment and took videos and images of the traps in action, and then identified the trap-forming agents using molecular identification techniques. From that initial encounter with the ‘fungal realm' I was hooked.
I took every opportunity on my degree to learn a little more about them, particularly about the myriad of ways in which fungi have shaped our culture: from why Otzi the ice man will have carried a birch polypore in his trekker's kit, to how psychotropic ergot alkaloids made their appearance in 17th century witch trials, and to the current application of fungi in biotechnology (see ethnomycology for more).
Studying fungi has heightened my awareness of how they have permeated almost every aspect our lives. Also, from a non-anthropocentric point of view, I appreciate them for what they, independent of human life: from their vital role in the decomposition and recycling of organic matter, to the panoply of pathogenic and symbiotic relationships they form with other organisms.
An important part of our biodiversity is literally held together by a branching-network of hyphae.
This project was funded by the Society for General Microbiology SGM Report (PDF document)
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