As much as it might seem that Earth's unexplored wilderness shrinks every day, right now is actually a “golden age of discovery,” says Bruce Stutz in a 2009 story from Yale Environment 360. By heading deeper into the wilds and by using advanced tools like DNA barcoding and genetic analyses, biologists are uncovering new species at a record clip. In 2006, says Stutz, scientists found 16,696 new species.
But scientists don't need to be trekking through dense forest, machete in hand, to find new forms of life. Some of these new species are just sitting around, right under our noses. Or in our mouths. You may have eaten one of them and not even known it.
In a new study by biologists Bryn Dentinger and Laura Suz from England's Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, the scientists found three previously unknown species of mushroom for sale in a southwest London shop. The pair report their findings in the non-peer reviewed journal Peer J.
The scientists really didn't have to dig very hard to find these new species. They walked into a Gaia Wholefoods store in Twickenham, picked up a single packet of dried mushrooms and genetically analyzed the 15 mushroom pieces they found inside.
Bam. Three new species.
There may be as many as 10 million species of fungi out there in the world, and scientists have barely even scratched the surface in documenting and describing them, say Dentinger and Suz in their report. Researchers add as many as 1,200 new species of fungi to the register of known species every year, but that still leaves oodles of unknowns. And some of those unknowns, it seems, sometimes wind up on dinner plates.
The three new species were all varieties of porcini mushroom, popular mushrooms for cooking. Porcini mushrooms can only be foraged, as farmers have never figured out how to grow them as a crop. For the past few decades, mushrooms exported from China's Yunnan Province have made up an increasing share of the porcini entering the food supply. But the Chinese mushrooms are less well documented than the more familiar European and North American species. The packet the researchers tested was imported from China.
That unknown species are being sold as food can be potentially problematic, say Dentinger and Suz. Not knowing what we're eating makes it hard to regulate harvest and trade and makes it hard to pin down the source if any health problems crop up. If nothing else, this find might open up how biologists and species hunters think about the "urban jungle."