Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the British Mycological Society

BACKGROUND

  The British Mycological Society is a learned society established in 1896, and a registered charity; it is the second largest society concerned with mycology in the world. The aim of the Society is to promote all aspects of the study of fungi, and it currently has a membership of 1246, including a wide range of professional and amateur mycologists. It publishes three scientific journals, the main one being Mycological Research (monthly; Impact Factor 1.86; and is the world's second most-highly cited journal in the field) and also has a symposium series.

SUMMARY

  Fungal systematics in the UK is in a worse state than at any time since the 1930s, and urgent action is needed if the needs of industry, medicine, agriculture, conservation, mycophagists, and amateur naturalists are to be met. The existing institutional structure needs to be re-examined, and, in view of a situation becoming increasingly critical through retirements, it is suggested that an interdepartmental committee be established to consider the issue as a matter of urgency. In particular it should consider the proposals made here for: (1) a decentralized National Mycological Institute be formed based on the existing national institutions; and (2) a specialist postgraduate training programme be established.

THE STATE OF SYSTEMATICS AND TAXONOMY RESEARCH

  1[27].  Systematic and taxonomic work on fungi carried out in the UK is at its lowest point since at least the 1930s. There has been a marked decline in systematic posts and research in the UK over the last decade as a result of restructuring of institutions, vacated positions not being filled, and retirements. The number of full-time fungal (including lichen) research systematists in the UK (excluding curator positions and persons doing small numbers of identifications for amateurs or as part of site surveys) is currently only 10 (including 3 lichenologists) across all institutions and universities. There is only one fungal systematist in the entire UK university system now (and he is due to retire in the next year). These figures compare with at least 23 systematic research posts in mycology in 1997. The result is that little systematic work on fungi now takes place in the UK, and that the UK has ceased to be a major contributor to systematics research on fungi. A major factor in this is the lack of recognition of mycology as a discipline independent from botany and microbiology, and a failure to recognize the huge amount of work required to place fungal systematics on a secure modern foundation.

  2.  Fungi are major component of biodiversity, with some 12,000 species (including lichen-forming species) recognized in the UK and additional discoveries being made continuously; species new to science are repeatedly being found, including conspicuous mushrooms as well as microscopic species. They also are: (1) valuable as indicators of climate change, as reflected in extended periods of mushroom-fruiting; (2) crucial but rarely appreciated components of global carbon cycles and budgets (as sources and sinks), where they are involved in the release of about ten times more carbon than all human activities; (3) essential to the well-being to existence of plants and numerous animals (invertebrates and vertebrates) with which they form mutualistic symbioses; and (4) practical bioindicators of air quality, habitat richness, and ecological continuity. Lichens in particular are used in SSSI site assessment and selection by the national conservation agencies. Important ecological work involving fungi in the UK is currently funded on an ad hoc basis, especially in relation to soil processes, mycorrhizas and air pollution, but is limited by inadequate systematic support.

  3.  There is currently no organized structure for systematic research on fungi in the UK. Institutions change policies and staffing without consultation and without the framework of a national programme. With respect to the major governmental institutions: (1) the former International Mycological Institute (now part of CABI Bioscience) now has only three systematists (two due to retire shortly), a figure reduced from 13 in the mid-1990s; (2) the Natural History Museum in London has none (from 4-5 in the 1980s-1990s); (3) the Royal Botanic Gardens 2 (from 3 in the late 1980s); (4) the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh still has two 2 (unchanged from the late 1980s but both are now lichenologists and there is no mushroom specialist); and (5) the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff has 1 (unchanged, and also a lichenologist). With respect to world standing, the UK has gone from being one of the foremost countries in the world on fungal systematics in the 1980s-1990s, where it had leaders dealing with fungi from mushrooms and microfungi to water moulds and lichens, to a minor player today. User needs are not being met in the UK at this time. There is little support from mycologists in post available for many aspects of applied science that involve fungi. Amongst the vital areas in need of an adequate level of fungal systematic support are: plant diseases, forest diseases, forest health (mycorrhizas), medical health, food safety, drug discovery, forensic science, prohibited substances (hallucinogenic mushrooms), biological weapons, ecosystem processes, conservation, and mushroom collectors and eaters (and their local organizations). The UK now lacks leading in-post specialists in the systematics of many groups of fungi of major economic importance, including Aspergillus, Fusarium, Penicillium, Pythium, and Trichoderma, as well as ones of medical importance as human pathogens.

  4.  A central service for fungal identification, backed by specialist systematists, is required. The UK has been a key world player in supply of existing taxonomic information on fungi through the databases and publications established by the former International Mycological Institute, and while some of these continue they are under-resourced and depend on 1-2 dedicated staff soon to retire. However, databases and web-based systems will not meet the needs of users alone. Specialist support is required to deal with the numerous novel taxa to science still being discovered and critical identifications. Specialist systematists are also needed to provide specialist training for those involved in government plant health, public health, and conservation services. Funding of mycology nationally could best be achieved by the establishment of a centrally managed and resourced, but decentralized, National Mycological Institute. This could be based on the existing institutions and collections, but with independent government funds and management. The Society estimates that such a national institute would require an annual staff and consumables budget of about £ 2.5 million to provide a centre with an adequate range of specialists.

  5.  Most countries in Europe still have strong fungal systematics research and teaching groups in the universities, many continuing traditional morphotaxonomy alongside or integrated with molecular phylogenetic approaches. Major museums generally have 2-3 fungal (including lichen) systematist and are centrally funded. The major world centre is now the Centraalbureau voor Schimmelcultures in Utrecht which is funded almost entirely by the Royal Academy of Sciences of The Netherlands and about 90 staff. In North America, the USDA support both the National Fungus Collection at its Beltsville site and the main US collection of living cultures at its Peoria laboratories (we understand that the American Type Culture Collection which depends on sales now has no fungal systematists). There used to be complementary appointments made between the Dutch collection and the International Mycological Institute, and that type of collaboration could perhaps be initiated again if a new centre were established in the UK.

  6.  Molecular systematics has revolutionized the understanding of the evolution of, and relationships between, different fungal groups, and classification systems have been radically revised as a result. Generic and species concepts have also been extensively revised, as molecular data has shown many not to comprise single biological entities, as previously assumed. Whole-genome comparisons can be expected to yield exciting new data pin-pointing genes involved in key functional processes; about 40 fungi are now completely sequenced or scheduled to be in the next year. The major breakthroughs in fungal molecular phylogenetics have been achieved by international collaboration, especially through the NSF-supported Assembling the Fungal Tree of Life (AFTOL) initiative; the major output papers have 40-65 co-authors, including several based in the UK. However, molecular approaches cannot proceed without a high level of whole-organism systematic support. Without that collaboration and input, errors in interpretation and misidentifications abound and call the integrity of the work into question. It has been estimated that around 20-25 per cent of the fungal sequences in GenBank are based on wrongly identified material, and GenBank itself has representatives of not more than 15 per cent of all described fungus species; the comparison of sequences with those in GenBank alone is thus not an alternative to having material studied by a specialist. While welcoming the Consortium on the Barcoding of Life (COBOL) movement in endeavouring to obtain some sequence data from many more species, because of the huge knowledge gap with so many undescribed fungal species we do not see it as a panacea. Further, because of problems in identification, it is essential that there are public repositories for voucher specimens and cultures for material sequenced so that identifications can be checked and experiments repeated or built-on. At present, the living and dried reference collections in the UK are not sufficiently well-supported to perform this task. As a result UK researchers now often deposit vouchers in, or obtain strains to use from, overseas collections. Alternatively, they continue to hold strains in unsatisfactory conditions for long-term storage in their own laboratories.

DATA COLLECTION, MANAGEMENT, MAINTENANCE AND DISSEMINATION

  7.  The former International Mycological Institute became the world reference point for systematic mycological information in the 1940s, and this has been continued by CABI Bioscience using electronic databases. The centre produces the Index of Fungi cataloguing all newly described fungi worldwide, and the Index Fungorum database which now covers around 425,000 scientific names of fungi. This database is available free on the worldwide web, and also now has links to original pages of some cited older publications. This is a world service, but has become inadequately resourced. It could be edited to a much higher standard with respect to information on currently accepted names and synonyms, which would make it even more valuable to users. The British Mycological Society is responsible for a national Fungal Records Database, which has inputs mainly from amateur mycologists, and which co-operates with the UK National Biodiversity Network (NBN). At present the data is predominantly of macrofungi and mainly input and maintained by volunteers. Because of potential problems with identifications, the records database has to be used with caution by conservation agencies and others. The British Lichen Society has an independent mapping scheme, not yet fully integrated with the NBN. Local recording and survey work on fungi in the UK is very patchy, mainly concerned with larger fungi and lichens, and almost entirely carried out by amateurs.

  8.  The combined collections of CABI Bioscience, the Natural History Museum London, and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew constitute the largest specimen reference resource of fungi (including lichens) in the world, and also have the largest number of type collections. Together these collections have about 1.6 million specimens; data on those of CABI Bioscience are all digitized (ca 400,000 specimens) and current accessions and loans are now being databased at the other two centres. The collections at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh are also of international importance, and there are extensive collections of national importance at the National Museum of Wales Cardiff and the Manchester Museum in particular. Small collections, mainly of lichens, are held in numerous provincial museums, many in need of curation, verification, and databasing. The London area collections are a part of the world's heritage and merit central funding accordingly, as do those in Edinburgh. Those in other museums are generally vouchers for regional and local records and publications. These regional and local collections need to be maintained and safeguarded so that they can be checked as taxonomic concepts change; this is very important when considering changes in distribution and fruiting patterns through time due to climate change, pollution, and other factors.

  9.  Little progress has been made in developing web-based taxonomies for fungi, except for major nomenclatural reference databases which are much in need of honing (see para 7 above). Some CDs have been prepared, mainly outside the UK, but are limited in taxonomic scope or geographical coverage. Numerous photographs of macrofungi and lichens are available on the web, but many are on the sites of amateurs and not always correctly named. Web-based systems based on monographic treatments are desirable and would empower and non-specialists to deal with many identifications themselves, but are not an alternative to having specialists as many groups of fungi are too poorly collected to enable comprehensive web-based systems to be constructed.

  10.  Quality of web-based systems requires a high levels of systematic knowledge from specialists with extensive field experience who collaborate with innovative computer specialists. Such systems also require extensive testing with non-specialists, something that has been a hallmark of the Field Studies Council's AIDGAP scheme which we applaud. However, authoritative web-based systems and computerized keys are not currently been developed for any major groups of fungi in the UK.

  11.  Historically there has been a strong link between the professional fungal (and lichen) taxonomists at national institutions and amateurs, and many amateurs are extremely skilled and produce important taxonomic papers. However, the amateurs need the support of professional systematists, major reference collections, and specialist libraries in order to make scientific contributions. Increasingly, UK "amateurs" are collaborating with molecular systematists outside the UK and preparing joint publications with them as they are unable to obtain appropriate support from UK institutions and universities. The national institutions have also produced the monographs (eg the multivolume British Fungus Flora from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, British Truffles and Basidiomycete Checklist from the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew) which are the syntheses of taxonomic work. Their staff have also been involved in preparing field guides on which amateur naturalists and mushroom-eaters depend. In addition, the national institutions formerly provided tutors for courses run by the Field Studies Council and similar bodies, as well as specialist workshops for more experienced amateurs and also field excursions. With so much interest in collecting fungi for food authoritative identification guides and hands-on training in identification are essential to minimize poisonings, but the specialists formerly able to undertake such outreach studies have not been replaced as they have retired and so fewer such courses are now run.

SKILLS BASE

  12.  The number of systematic mycologists in the UK, 10, is at its lowest level since the 1930s and only one of those is employed in a university (see para 1).

  13.  There is now almost no teaching of systematic mycology at any university in the UK, and we are not aware of any substantial courses devoted to the subject in biology or microbiology departments. This means that graduates are being produced in these subject areas which lack even basic knowledge on fungi and how to identify them that are needed to support careers in many applied aspects of science, including plant pathology, food safety, pharmaceuticals, and human health. In addition, there are no longer any formal postgraduate courses devoted entirely to fungal systematics run in the UK. Further, the last two PhDs in fungal systematics by UK nationals were completed in 1995 and 1998, and both of those mycologists subsequently took up permanent posts in the USA. The former International Mycological Institute used to make a major contribution to the MSc in Pure and Applied Plant (and Fungal) Taxonomy run at the University of Reading and the MSc in Fungal Biotechnology at the University of Kent; these mainly attracted overseas students, some of whom went on to obtain PhDs co-supervised by Institute staff, but these students returned home and the former arrangements ended in the late 1990s. In the absence of postgraduate training programmes, where vacancies have arisen for fungal systematists in the UK the positions have invariably either been filled temporarily by mycologists from other countries who have subsequently returned to their own countries, or the posts have remained unfilled (eg the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew has twice failed to fill an advertised position for a much-needed specialist on larger fungi). The lack of trained fungal systematists also means that there is no national pool from which pharmaceutical industry, plant health, food safety, and medical centres can recruit mycologists with high skill levels. In addition there are no UK PhD-level mycologists available to compete for more general systematic positions that arise in universities. In order to rectify the present situation, consideration might be given to: (1) financing a new MSc in Pure and Applied Fungal Systematics to be taught by current institution-based and retired specialists; and (2) funding promising graduate students to work with experienced mycologists so that the expertise could be passed on (this was highly successful in the NSF-supported PEER programme in the USA).

  [14].  In view of the critical nature of the current situation as a result of recent and impending retirements and restructurings, the Society considers that it would not be inappropriate for an inter-departmental committee to be established to consider the special situation in mycology and the particular proposals made herein.



27   Numbers of paragraphs reflect those used in the "Call for Evidence". Back


 
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