Mushrooming problem

January 8, 2009

Peter Spencer-Phillips, vice-president of the British Mycological Society (Letters, 18 December), is correct to say that I was talking specifically about the critical decline of fungal systematics and taxonomy in the UK, not UK mycology in general (The week in higher education, 4 December).

Our original focus on both traditional taxonomy and molecular phylogenetics in this interview lost some detail when it was abstracted and reported in various sources.

Our point is that there are now very few people in professional positions in the UK who have in-depth experience in fungal identification and in developing the systematic and phylogenetic framework for mycology. Although there are extremely good amateurs in the UK, this is not a healthy situation. Without these skills there is a major risk of mistakes in identification leading to inefficient or grossly misleading science communication.

Since the Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International (CABI) originally did the interview a month or so ago, the last remaining UK specialist in basidiomycete systematics has taken early retirement. If this loss of expertise continues in the UK, we are in danger of being in a position where we are incapable of carrying out fungal biodiversity studies and the interface between whole-organism and subcellular research will be lost.

While there is no doubt that it will soon be possible to identify the most widely encountered fungi using DNA bar codes, and indeed CABI uses molecular tools routinely, these might amount to well under 10 per cent of known species.

For the remaining 90 per cent, as yet uncharacterised DNA sequence data will go only some way to giving a proper characterisation that can be simply and reliably recognised, for example by extension workers in developing countries who may have access to a microscope but not to a polymerase chain reaction thermocycler. We still need written descriptions.

There is world-class research taking place in the UK in fungal biology and the next International Mycological Congress in 2010 will be a showcase for this. However, the skills needed to name and describe new species to facilitate effective communication of their properties and activities are fast declining.

Joan Kelley, Executive director, bioservices, CABI.

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