Yeasts, molds, and mushrooms don’t get the respect they deserve according to scientists at the renowned Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in England. To correct this injustice, they’re issuing a “State of the World’s Fungi” report—and hoping to generate support for the fungus among us.
God created nearly four million species of fungi. Of those, only about 144,000 have been identified. New fungi discoveries are made all the time. Still, researchers know relatively little about fungi—partly because many are hidden underground or invisible to the naked eye.
Fungus has been used to ferment food and drink for thousands of years. According to researchers, fungi also provide food, medicine, nutrition for plants, and lifesaving drugs for humans.
But even fungus fans admit some fungi have a dark side. These organisms can spread death and destruction. Most people know about toxic mushrooms. But did you know there’s a fungus that invades cicada nymphs, lives in their bodies, and slowly kills them? Some fungi live inside ants, controlling their movements before slaying them. The fungi can infect an entire colony of ants with their spores, says Kew’s chief fungus specialist Ester Gaya.
“They turn them into zombie ants,” she says.
Kew Director of Science Katherine Willis calls some fungi traits “really disgusting.” But she points out that fungus-related medical discoveries have helped humans—such as developing drugs to prevent organ rejection after transplants.
The Kew fungarium houses the largest fungus collection in the world with over a million specimens. Their official report is the first-ever global look at fungi’s importance. Researchers hope the focus on fungi will call attention to new uses for the much-maligned organism. One such unusual use deploys a fungus to “eat” plastic—look out, trash heap! Researchers are also working on one to clean up radioactive material—goodbye, nuclear waste!
The current attention on fungi is new. But Kew’s fungi collection goes back hundreds of years. In the 1800s, children’s author Beatrix Potter contributed to it. Potter was a devoted fungus fan. She painted detailed illustrations of fungi and wrote scientific papers on the topic. Once Potter clashed with Kew’s top fungus specialist—and ended up unkindly suggesting he had become a fungus himself.
Willis believes fungi could provide answers to some global health or economic challenges. Could fungi one day cure cancer or stop Alzheimer’s disease? Only the Creator God knows. But Willis declares, “We ignore it at our peril.”