Mycology and the wider world (contributed by David Moore, Geoff Robson & Tony Trinci, 2011)

Over the last 25 years there has been a large increase in the number of students proceeding to university but this has been accompanied by a substantial decrease in the funding provided per student. Change in teaching provision has been accompanied by a narrowing of biological sciences research, which has become increasingly focussed on the more biomedical aspects of the subject, resulting in a consequential narrowing in the scope of biological science subjects taught in universities, both in the UK and worldwide.

These changes in biological sciences teaching and research have been encouraged by several features. Universities have sought economies of scale by merging Biological Science departments. For example, the University of Manchester merged eleven Biological Science departments into a single Department of Biological Sciences [Wilson, D. (2008). Reconfiguring Biological Sciences in the Late Twentieth Century: A Study of the University of Manchester. Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, pp.116. ISBN-10: 095589719X, ISBN-13: 978-0955897191.]. This Department became the Faculty of Life Sciences in the new institution formed when UMIST and the Victoria University of Manchester merged in 2004.

With most other UK universities following Manchester’s lead, only the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have Departments of Botany, the traditional host department for mycology teaching and research now, in 2011. This reduction in the scope of biological sciences teaching intensified as many staff in traditional areas of biology, for example, taxonomy and ecology, failed to appreciate the importance of molecular biology and the influence it would have on their subject areas. Indeed, in the 1980s some biological science staff viewed molecular biology as a self-contained discipline that had little or no relevance to their work. Unfortunately, many mycologists were among those who held this view. So, one purpose of the present text is to dispel lingering doubts about the importance of molecular biology to all aspects of mycology by illustrating from the start how the molecule-level perspective improves our understanding of fungi.

Inevitably, the natural importance that governments attach to health care has caused funding bodies to focus support on biomedical research at the expense of other areas of the subject, including mycology. During the latter part of the twentieth century, reduced funding for biological science teaching and channelling of funding to biomedical research strongly influenced the way in which universities redeveloped their Biological Science Departments. Today, some such Departments largely serve the perceived needs of teaching and research in Medicine, that is, they mainly support or underpin medical activities. In our opinion, this type of interdepartmental relationship is unlikely to generate high-quality research in either biological sciences or medicine. Would the research of George Beadle and Edward Tatum, working with Neurospora crassa, or Paul Nurse, working with Schizosaccharomyces pombe or Lee Hartwell (who worked with Saccharomyces cerevisiae) flourish in such an environment? When Beadle and Tatum, and Nurse and Hartwell initiated the research that eventually resulted in their becoming Nobel Laureates, they were almost certainly unaware of the relevance of their work to medicine. It is our view that, although Biological Sciences and Medical Departments should collaborate closely, each should be independent of the other, and, to a greater or lesser extent, each should foster all aspects of its subject area. If evolution has taught us anything it is about the advantage gained by populations that have large gene pools, and there’s not much academic diversity in a Department of Human Biology.

In view of all this, an underlying purpose of this website is to emphasise the broad importance of fungi to humans and the economy. Every hour of our day depends on the activities of fungi. The feature which has figured most in our decision to write on this topic is that although fungi comprise what is arguably the most crucial Kingdom of organisms on the planet, these organisms are often bypassed and ignored by the majority of biologists. We use the word ‘crucial’ in the previous sentence because molecular phylogenies place animals and fungi together at the root of evolutionary trees. It is likely that the first eukaryotes would have been recognised as ‘fungal in nature’ by features presently associated with that Kingdom. So in a sense, those primitive ‘fungi’ effectively invented the lifestyle of so-called higher organisms. Fungi remain crucial to life on Earth because animal life depends on plant life for continued existence and plants depend on fungi (over 95% of terrestrial plants require fungal infection of their roots by mycorrhizas for adequate root function). The number of fungal species has been conservatively put at 1.5 million, though the true number may be much higher than this. Among this number is included the largest organism on Earth; one individual mycelium of Armillaria gallica covering some 8.9 km2 in the Malheur National Forest, Oregon. Fungi also include some of the most rapidly-moving organisms on Earth, because when some fungal spores are discharged they can be subjected to forces of acceleration several thousand times greater than that experienced by astronauts during the launch of the Space Shuttle! Fungi also provide an essential service to the planet by being responsible for the majority of the biomass recycling, particularly the decomposition of dead plants. Saprotrophic degradation is the characteristic lifestyle of the majority of fungi, and without this activity we would be buried under dead plant litter.

The contribution that fungi make to human existence is close to crucial, too. Imagine life without bread, without alcohol, without antibiotics, without soft drinks (citric acid), coffee or chocolate, without cheese (fungal rennet), salami or soy sauce, or without cyclosporine, which prevents organ rejection by suppressing the immune response in transplant patients, without the statins, which keep so many people alive these days by controlling cholesterol levels, and even without today’s most widely used agricultural fungicides, the strobilurins, and you are imagining a much less satisfactory existence than we currently enjoy.
But fungi are not always benevolent. There are fungal diseases of all our crops, and in many cases crop losses of 20% to 50% are expected by the industry. And there is more to fungal infection of humans than Athlete’s foot; the majority of AIDS patients now die of fungal infections, and opportunistic fungal infections of patients with chronic immunodeficiency is an increasing clinical challenge.

Unfortunately, even though fungi make up such a large group of higher organisms, most current biology teaching, from school level upwards, concentrates on animals, with a trickle of information about plants. School curricula around the world are almost completely silent about fungal biology as most school curricula persist with the Victorian obsession to compare animals with plants. But fungi are not plants, and are so different from plants that no amount of plant biology will give an adequate understanding of any fungus. Similarly, although more closely related, in molecular terms, to animals, fungi are not animals and a deficiency of fungal biology cannot be compensated by more zoology. Yet none of the school science curricula we have examined (not even those claiming to specialise in ‘Biology’) give adequate accounts of all the different sorts of organisms that exist on Earth. The result is that the majority of school and college students (and, since they’ve been through the same system, most current University academics) are ignorant of fungal biology and therefore of their own dependence on fungi in everyday life. This is a self-sustaining cycle of ignorance that results in institutions being oblivious to fungi; all generated by the lack of an even-handed treatment of fungal biology in national school curricula. It seems to apply throughout Europe, North and South America, and Australasia; indeed, through most of the English-speaking world.

We believe, though we have small hope of seeing it, that Biological Science Departments need to guard against overspecialisation, particularly as most universities are following an identical strategy of focussing on biomedical activities. We fear that emerging concerns about food security will result in the UK regretting its lack of mycologists and plant scientists, as it presently regrets its lack of nuclear engineers. It is important for Europe to maintain a critical mass of mycologists in both universities and research institutes; and we hope this website and our books will help to educate them.

David Moore, Geoff Robson and Tony Trinci
February, 2011

Faculty of Life Sciences, The University of Manchester

[Abstracted, with permission, from the preface of the new textbook 21st Century Guidebook to Fungi by David Moore, Geoffrey D. Robson & Anthony P.J. Trinci. Published 2011 by Cambridge University Press: ISBN: 9780521186957. URL: View Amazon page.]

Updated June 7, 2012