Mycologist Travels World in Search of New Fungi

Catherine Aime

Catherine Aime

02/02/2016 |

Much like our trusty U.S. postal carriers, virtually no extremes of wind, rain or heat keep Catherine Aime and her research associates from traveling the far corners of the earth in search of undiscovered fungi.

Flying across Belize as hurricane-force winds whip their helicopter, traversing a Nigerian jungle during a thunderstorm and journeying by donkey into Ecuador’s Amazonian rainforest and by dugout canoe on the great rivers of Guyana are all adventures that Aime’s team has had in the name of mycology, the study of fungi. “It’s one of the last frontiers in biology,” says Aime, an associate professor of mycology. “We know there are six to 20 times more species of fungi than plants, but we don’t really know much about them.”

Cryptic and unpredictable
Fungi are essential to the health of ecosystems, plants and animals, but despite their importance and rich diversity, comparatively little is known about them. Many species have “cryptic and unpredictable life histories,” Aime says, making them difficult to study. “Few produce those visible mushrooms that we can see,” she explains. “The majority are microscopic throughout their life history.”

Right now, scientists have described around 100,000 species of fungi, but estimates of the number of fungi species worldwide is upwards of 5.1 million. For the last 15 years, Aime’s team has been exploring South and Central America, Africa, and the South Pacific, including the western Pakaraima Mountains of the Guyana Shield, in search of new species.

“We go way out in the bush, where the Amerindians, one of the last hunter-gatherer groups on the planet, live,” Aime says. “In the single ecosystem in Guyana where we have focused, we have tallied more than 1,500 species of fungi, mostly saprobic Basidiomycota, the majority of which have been previously undescribed.”

A collections-based revolution
Last spring, Aime’s work made international headlines when a team she was part of announced that genetic material from fungi collections at Purdue University and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, had helped them resolve the mushroom “tree of life,” a map of the relationships between key mushroom species and their evolutionary history that scientists have struggled to piece together for more than 200 years.

“We may be on the verge of a major collections-based revolution,” says Aime of the discovery. “People think of fungaria as similar to stamp collections — they’re not. These collections anchor our concepts of everything in biology and are our only repositories for some dying or possibly already-extinct species. It’s extraordinarily important that we try to collect and preserve as many species as we can.”

– Angie Roberts and Natalie van Hoose
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