This article was originally published on The conversation.
It’s no secret that the Earth’s biodiversity is under threat. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 26% of all mammals, 14% of birds and 41% of amphibians are currently threatened worldwide, mainly due to human impacts such as climate change and development.
Other forms of life are also under pressure, but they are more difficult to count and assess. Some scientists have warned of mass insect mortality, although others say the case has not been proven. And then there are fungi, microbes that often go unnoticed, with around 2 to 4 million species. Fewer than 150,000 fungi have received formal scientific descriptions and classifications.
If you love bread, wine, or soy sauce, or have taken penicillin or immunosuppressive drugs, thank the mushrooms, which make all of these products possible. With the exception of baker’s yeast and button mushrooms, most fungi remain neglected and thrive hidden in darkness and humidity. But scientists agree that these are valuable organisms that deserve to be protected.
As mycologists whose biodiversity work includes the study of fungi that interact with centipedes, plants, mosquitoes, and real insects, we have dedicated our careers to understanding the critical roles that fungi play. These relationships can be beneficial, harmful, or neutral to the fungus’ partner organism. But it’s no exaggeration to say that without the fungi that break down dead matter and recycle its nutrients, life on Earth would be unrecognizable.
Healthy ecosystems need mushrooms
The incredible biological fungal kingdom includes everything from support fungi, molds and yeasts to mushrooms and more. Mushrooms are not plants, although they are usually stored near fresh produce in grocery stores. In fact, they are more closely related to animals.
But mushrooms have unique characteristics that set them apart. They grow by budding or in the form of long filiform tubes often branched. To reproduce, fungi usually form spores, a stage of propagation and dormancy. Rather than taking food into their bodies to eat, fungi release enzymes onto their food to break it down, then absorb the sugars that are released. The fungal kingdom is very diverse, so many mold-breaking fungi.
Fungi play essential ecological roles around the world. Some have been forming critical partnerships with plant roots for hundreds of millions of years. Others break down dead plants and animals and return essential nutrients to the soil for other life to use.
Fungi are among the few organisms capable of degrading lignin, a main component of wood that gives plants their rigidity. Without fungi, our forests would be littered with huge piles of woody debris.
Still other fungi form unique mutualistic partnerships with insects. Flavodon ambrosius, a white rot fungus, not only serves as the primary source of nutrition for some fungus-producing ragweed beetles, but it also rapidly outcompete other wood-colonizing fungi, allowing these beetles to build large multigenerational communities. Similarly, leafcutter ants raise Leucoagaricus gongylophorus as food by gathering dead plant matter in their nests to feed their fungus partner.
An almost unknown kingdom
We can only partially appreciate the benefits of mushrooms because scientists have a narrow and very incomplete view of the fungal kingdom. Imagine trying to put together a 4 million piece puzzle with only 3% to 5% of the pieces. Mycologists struggle to formally describe the Earth’s fungal biodiversity while simultaneously assessing the conservation status of various species and tracking losses.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species currently includes 551 fungi, compared to 58,343 plants and 12,100 insects. About 60% of these listed fungal species are gilled fungi or lichenized fungi, which represent a very small sample of the fungal kingdom.
When asked what a mushroom looks like, the average person will probably imagine a mushroom, which is partly correct. Mushrooms are “fruiting bodies,” or reproductive structures, that only certain fungi produce. But the majority of fungi produce no fruiting bodies visible to the naked eye, or at all, so these “micro fungi” are largely overlooked.
Many people see mushrooms as scary or disgusting. Today, although interest in fungi is growing, disease-causing species, such as chytrid fungus in amphibians and white-nose syndrome in bats, still receive more attention than fungi. playing an essential and beneficial role in the environment.
Protecting our fungal future
Even with limited knowledge about the status of fungi, there is growing evidence that climate change threatens them as much as it threatens plants, animals and other microbes. Pollution, drought, fires and other disturbances all contribute to the loss of valuable mushrooms.
This is not only true on earth. Recent studies of aquatic fungi, which play all sorts of important roles in rivers, lakes and oceans, have raised concerns that little is being done to conserve them.
It’s hard to motivate people to care about something they don’t know or understand. And establishing effective conservation programs for organisms that are mysterious even to scientists is difficult. But people who care about mushrooms try. In addition to the IUCN Mushroom Conservation Committee, which coordinates global mushroom conservation initiatives, various non-governmental and non-profit organizations advocate for mushrooms.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a surge in public interest in all things mushroom, from home grow kits and grow classes to increased enrollment in local mycological societies. We hope this new acceptance can benefit fungi, their habitats, and the people who study and manage them. A measure of success would be people asking not only if a mushroom is poisonous or edible, but also if it needs protection.
Delegations from most countries in the world will gather in China this fall for a major conference on biodiversity protection. Their goal is to set international benchmarks for the conservation of life on Earth for years to come. Mycologists want the plan to include fungi, yeasts and molds.
Anyone who exercises their curiosity outdoors can use community science platforms, such as iNaturalist, to report their mushroom sightings and learn more. Joining a mycology club is a great way to learn how to find and harvest mushrooms responsibly, without over-picking or damaging their habitats.
Fungi form important networks and partnerships all around us in the environment, moving resources and information in all directions between soil, water and other living things. For us, they exemplify the power of connection and cooperation, valuable traits in this precarious phase of life on Earth.
Matt Kasson is an associate professor of mycology and plant pathology at West Virginia University. Brian Lovett is a postdoctoral researcher in mycology at West Virginia University. Patricia Kaishian is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology at Bard College. Disclosure Statement: Matt Kasson receives funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society and the United States Department of Agriculture.