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Fungi Call Oil Paintings, Cockroach Guts Home Sweet Home

Scientists say they have identified a fungus species that could aid the fight against plastic pollution

In 2017, scientists identified 2,189 new species of fungi, including the Galapagos Island lichen pictured here (Robert Lücking)
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Mushrooms may be the most well-known fungus species, but the versatile biological kingdom encompasses far more than these toadstool-like delicacies. In fact, Damian Carrington reports for The Guardian, scientists have only identified 144,000 of the estimated 2.2 to 3.8 million species found across the globe, leaving some 90 percent yet to be discovered.

This statistic is just one of the insights offered by a new report from Great Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The comprehensive survey, entitled State of the World’s Fungi, is the first of its kind and reveals a previously unseen side of the organisms, which Kew science director Kathy Willis calls the environmental equivalent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

As Carrington notes, about 90 percent of plants require fungi’s support to survive. Humans also rely on fungi, which constitute an essential building block in medicines such as penicillin.

Still, the organism has a darker, Hyde-like side: BBC News’ Helen Briggs writes that fungi are capable of devastating trees, crops and other plant varieties, as well as inflicting damage on amphibian species.

“Their ability to play both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde roles within their environments is unparalleled,” Willis tells Carrington, “[but] historically they have remained in the shadows when compared with research on plants and animals.”

In an interview with Science magazine’s Erik Stokstad, mycologist Tuula Niskanen describes some of the team’s most intriguing finds. One type of single-celled fungus lives in a tropical cockroach species’ Malpighian tubes, or the rough equivalent of human kidneys. Another calls the diesel-contaminated soils of Antarctica home, while a third grows in the Chilean Andes salt crusts, enjoying a symbiotic relationship with a certain kind of green alga.

Researchers also identified 37 new species of Aspergillus molds, which Carrington writes survived in environments ranging from an oil painting to a fingernail, plant tissue and a baby-carrier backpack.

Another development highlighted by the report is fungi’s potential role in the fight against plastic pollution. CNN’s James Masters reports that Aspergillus tubingensis, a species native to Pakistan, is capable of breaking down plastics such as polyester polyurethane, a common component in refrigerator insulation and synthetic leather, in weeks rather than years. As Sky News notes, this process typically takes decades or even centuries.

A study on A. tubingensis’ plastic processing properties found the fungi degraded the plastic in just two months. According to the report, the species could be “developed into one of the tools desperately needed to address the growing environmental problem of plastic water.”

Fungi range in size and complexity from microscopic, single-celled organisms to mushrooms, molds and yeasts. The kingdom is more closely related to animals than plants, BBC News’ Briggs writes, and shares cell wall chemicals with lobsters and crabs. In 2017, scientists discovered 2,189 new fungi species—including Planamyces parisiensis, a mold found on the rotting timber beams of a Parisian apartment building, and Gymnosporangium przewalskii, a type of parasitic rust fungi that needs its host to stay alive—but as Niskanen tells Science’s Stokstad, “at the current rate, it would take more than 1,000 years to describe” all of the world’s fungi varieties.

More than 100 scientists from 18 countries collaborated on the report, which showcases the previously unheralded versatility of the fungal kingdom.

“As the foundation of the world’s ecosystems, fungi potentially hold the answers for everything from food security and biofuels to desertification and medicinal advances,” Willis tells The Guardian’s Carrington.

But fungi’s role in the environment isn’t entirely positive. As Willis adds, “Throughout the world there is significant concern related to the spread of fungal pathogens that are devastating crops and wild plant communities, a threat which seems to be increasing with climate change.”

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