Bringing Order to the Fungus Among Us

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"They sort of figure into people's lives everyday, including air quality, yet we still don't know which fungi are doing what we are concerned about," Vilgalys said.

Examples of potential benefits from the Assembling the Fungal Tree of Life project include helping scientists find a way to deal with the chytrid fungus that is attacking frogs around the world and causing their populations to crash.

The study of fungi could also lead to the discovery of new drugs. Fungal-produced drugs discovered to date include antibiotics like penicillin, cephalosporins, and griseofulvin, which is used on athlete's foot and ringworm.

"And everyone agrees fungi are essential components of the environment," Vilgalys said. "They are the only thing that can degrade lignin plant material [which helps give plants rigidity]." Without fungi, piles of fallen leaves and wood would lay only partially decomposed on the forest floor.

Fungal Tree

Once completed, the "fungal tree of life" will serve as a sort of road map to fungal diversity, allowing researchers to approach fungal studies with the knowledge of how various groups within the fungal kingdom are interrelated.

For example, a researcher interested in a disease-causing organism could look at the tree and find the most closely related non-disease-causing species to help tease out the genetic traits that cause the disease, Vilgalys said.

In addition to discovering new drugs and compounds of use to the biochemical industry, Vilgalys also hopes the Assembling the Fungal Tree of Life project will provide amateur mycophiles a better appreciation for what is out there.

"Recreational mushroomers are mainly concerned with macro fungi—the mushrooms, the things they can see, touch, and feel. Knowing something about their relationships or their ecology just gives us a higher sense of why these things are interesting," he said.

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