About 500,000 Australian species are undiscovered – and scientists are on a 25-year mission to finish the job


Wikimedia

Kevin Thiele, The University of Western Australia and Jane Melville, Museums VictoriaHere are two quiz questions for you. How many species of animals, plants, fungi, fish, insects and other organisms live in Australia? And how many of these have been discovered and named?

To the first, the answer is we don’t really know. But the best guess of taxonomists – the scientists who discover, name, classify and document species – is that Australia’s lands, rivers, coasts and oceans probably house more than 700,000 distinct species.

On the second, taxonomists estimate almost 200,000 species have been scientifically named since Europeans first began exploring, collecting and classifying Australia’s remarkable fauna and flora.

Together, these estimates are disturbing. After more than 300 years of effort, scientists have documented fewer than one-third of Australia’s species. The remaining 70% are unknown, and essentially invisible, to science.

Taxonomists in Australia name an average 1,000 new species each year. At that rate, it will take at least 400 years to complete even a first-pass stocktake of Australia’s biodiversity.

This poor knowledge is a serious threat to Australia’s environment. And a first-of-its kind report released today shows it’s also a huge missed economic opportunity. That’s why today, Australia’s taxonomists are calling on governments, industry and the community to support an important mission: discovering and documenting all Australian species within 25 years.

Australia: a biodiversity hotspot

Biologically, Australia is one of the richest and most diverse nations on Earth – between 7% and 10% of all species on Earth occur here. It also has among the world’s highest rates of species discovery. But our understanding of biodiversity is still very, very incomplete.

Of course, First Nations peoples discovered, named and classified many species within their knowledge systems long before Europeans arrived. But we have no ready way yet to compare their knowledge with Western taxonomy.

Finding new species in Australia is not hard – there are almost certainly unnamed species of insects, spiders, mites and fungi in your backyard. Any time you take a bush holiday you’ll drive past hundreds of undiscovered species. The problem is recognising the species as new and finding the time and resources to deal with them all.

Taxonomists describe and name new species only after very careful due diligence. Every specimen must be compared with all known named species and with close relatives to ensure it is truly a new species. This often involves detailed microscopic studies and gene sequencing.

More fieldwork is often needed to collect specimens and study other species. Specimens in museums and herbaria all over the world sometimes need to be checked. After a great deal of work, new species are described in scientific papers for others to assess and review.

So why do so many species remain undiscovered? One reason is a shortage of taxonomists trained to the level needed. Another is that technologies to substantially speed up the task have only been developed in the past decade or so. And both these, of course, need appropriate levels of funding.

Of course, some groups of organisms are better known than others. In general, noticeable species – mammals, birds, plants, butterflies and the like – are fairly well documented. Most less noticeable groups – many insects, fungi, mites, spiders and marine invertebrates – remain poorly known. But even inconspicuous species are important.

Fungi, for example, are essential for maintaining our natural ecosystems and agriculture. They fertilise soils, control pests, break down litter and recycle nutrients. Without fungi, the world would literally grind to a halt. Yet, more than 90% of Australian fungi are believed to be unknown.




Read more:
How we discovered a hidden world of fungi inside the world’s biggest seed bank


fungi on log
Fungi plays an essential ecosystem role.
Shutterstock

Mind the knowledge gap

So why does all this matter?

First, Australia’s biodiversity is under severe and increasing threat. To manage and conserve our living organisms, we must first discover and name them.

At present, it’s likely many undocumented species are becoming extinct, invisibly, before we know they exist. Or, perhaps worse, they will be discovered and named from dead specimens in our museums long after they have gone extinct in nature.

Second, many undiscovered species are crucial in maintaining a sustainable environment for us all. Others may emerge as pests and threats in future; most species are rarely noticed until something goes wrong. Knowing so little about them is a huge risk.

Third, enormous benefits are to be gained from these invisible species, once they are known and documented. A report released today
by Deloitte Access Economics, commissioned by Taxonomy Australia, estimates a benefit to the national economy of between A$3.7 billion and A$28.9 billion if all remaining Australian species are documented.

Benefits will be greatest in biosecurity, medicine, conservation and agriculture. The report found every $1 invested in discovering all remaining Australian species will bring up to $35 of economic benefits. Such a cost-benefit analysis has never before been conducted in Australia.

The investment would cover, among other things, research infrastructure, an expanded grants program, a national effort to collect specimens of all species and new facilities for gene sequencing.




Read more:
A few months ago, science gave this rare lizard a name – and it may already be headed for extinction


Two scientists walk through wetlands holding boxes
Discovering new species often involves lots of field work.
Shutterstock

Mission possible

Australian taxonomists – in museums, herbaria, universities, at the CSIRO and in
government departments – have spent the last few years planning an ambitious mission to discover and document all remaining Australian species within a generation.

So, is this ambitious goal achievable, or even imaginable? Fortunately, yes.

It will involve deploying new and emerging technologies, including high-throughput robotic DNA sequencing, artificial intelligence and supercomputing. This will vastly speed up the process from collecting specimens to naming new species, while ensuring rigour and care in the science.

A national meeting of Australian taxonomists, including the young early career researchers needed to carry the mission through, was held last year. The meeting confirmed that with the right technologies and more keen and bright minds trained for the task, the rate of species discovery in Australia could be sped up by the necessary 16-fold – reducing 400 years of effort to 25 years.

With the right people, technologies and investment, we could discover all Australian species. By 2050 Australia could be the world’s first biologically mega-rich nation to have documented all our species, for the direct benefit of this and future generations.




Read more:
Hundreds of Australian lizard species are barely known to science. Many may face extinction


The Conversation


Kevin Thiele, Adjunct Assoc. Professor, The University of Western Australia and Jane Melville, Senior Curator, Terrestrial Vertebrates, Museums Victoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

5 ways fungi could change the world, from cleaning water to breaking down plastics


Shutterstock

Mitchell P. Jones, Vienna University of TechnologyFungi — a scientific goldmine? Well, that’s what a review published today in the journal Trends in Biotechnology indicates. You may think mushrooms are a long chalk from the caped crusaders of sustainability. But think again.

Many of us have heard of fungi’s role in creating more sustainable leather substitutes. Amadou vegan leather crafted from fungal-fruiting bodies has been around for some 5,000 years.

More recently, mycelium leather substitutes have taken the stage. These are produced from the root-like structure mycelium, which snakes through dead wood or soil beneath mushrooms.

You might even know about how fungi help us make many fermented food and drinks such as beer, wine, bread, soy sauce and tempeh. Many popular vegan protein products, including Quorn, are just flavoured masses of fungal mycelium.

But what makes fungi so versatile? And what else can they do?

Show me foamy and flexible

Fungal growth offers a cheap, simple and environmentally friendly way to bind agricultural byproducts (such as rice hulls, wheat straw, sugarcane bagasse and molasses) into biodegradable and carbon-neutral foams.

Fungal foams are becoming increasingly popular as sustainable packaging materials; IKEA is one company that has indicated a commitment to using them.

Fungal foams can also be used in the construction industry for insulation, flooring and panelling. Research has revealed them to be strong competitors against commercial materials in terms of having effective sound and heat insulation properties.

Rigid and flexible fungal foams have several construction applications including (a) particle board and insulation cores, (b) acoustic absorbers, (c) flexible foams and (d) flooring.
Jones et al

Moreover, adding in industrial wastes such as glass fines (crushed glass bits) in these foams can improve their fire resistance.

And isolating only the mycelium can produce a more flexible and spongy foam suitable for products such as facial sponges, artificial skin, ink and dye carriers, shoe insoles, lightweight insulation lofts, cushioning, soft furnishings and textiles.




Read more:
Scientists create new building material out of fungus, rice and glass


Paper that doesn’t come from trees? No, chitin

For other products, it’s the composition of fungi that matters. Fungal filaments contain chitin: a remarkable polymer also found in crab shells and insect exoskeletons.

Chitin has a fibrous structure, similar to cellulose in wood. This means fungal fibre can be processed into sheets the same way paper is made.

When stretched, fungal papers are stronger than many plastics and not much weaker than some steels of the same thickness. We’ve yet to test its properties when subject to different forces.

Fungal paper’s strength can be substituted for rubbery flexibility by using specific fungal species, or a different part of the mushroom. The paper’s transparency can be customised in the same way.

Paper sheets with varying transparency derived from the brown crab’s shell (C. pagurus) (column 1), fungi Daedaleopsis confragosa (column 2) and the mushroom Agaricus bisporus (column 6). Columns 3, 4 and 5 show fungal papers of varying transparencies based on mixtures of the two species.
Wan Nawawi et al

Growing fungi in mineral-rich environments results in inherent fire resistance for the fungus, as it absorbs the inflammable minerals, incorporating them into its structure. Add to this that water doesn’t wet fungal surfaces, but rolls off, and you’ve got yourself some pretty useful paper.

A clear solution to dirty water

Some might ask: what’s the point of fungal paper when we already get paper from wood? That’s where the other interesting attributes of chitin come into play — or more specifically, the attributes of its derivative, chitosan.

Chitosan is chitin that has been chemically modified through exposure to an acid or alkali. This means with a few simple steps, fungal paper can adopt a whole new range of applications.

For instance, chitosan is electrically charged and can be used to attract heavy metal ions. So what happens if you couple it with a mycelium filament network that is intricate enough to prevent solids, bacteria and even viruses (which are much smaller than bacteria) from passing through?

White-button mushroom
Fungal chitin paper derived from white-button mushrooms is an eco-friendly alternative to standard filter materials.
Shutterstock

The result is an environmentally friendly membrane with impressive water purification properties. In our research, my colleagues and I found this material to be stable, simple to make and useful for laboratory filtration.

While the technology hasn’t yet been commercialised, it holds particular promise for reducing the environmental impact of synthetic filtration materials, and providing safer drinking water where it’s not available.

Mushrooms in modern medicine

Perhaps even more interesting is chitosan’s considerable biomedical potential. Fungal materials have been used to create dressings with active wound healing properties.

Although not currently on the market, these have been proven to have antibacterial properties, stem bleeding and support cell proliferation and attachment.

Fungal enzymes can also be used to combat bacteria active in tooth decay, enhance bleaching and destroy compounds responsible for bad breath.




Read more:
Vegan leather made from mushrooms could mould the future of sustainable fashion


Then there’s the well-known role of fungi in antibiotics. Penicillin, made from the Penicillium fungi, was a scientific breakthrough that has saved millions of lives and become a staple of modern healthcare.

Many antibiotics are still produced from fungi or soil bacteria. And in an age of increasing antibiotic resistance, genome sequencing is finally enabling us to identify fungi’s untapped potential for manufacturing the antibiotics of the future.

Mushrooms mending the environment

Fungi could play a huge role in sustainability by remedying existing environmental damage.

For example, they can help clean up contaminated industrial sites through a popular technique known as mycoremediation, and can break down or absorb oils, pollutants, toxins, dyes and heavy metals.

They can also compost some synthetic plastics, such as polyurethane. In this process, the plastic is buried in regulated soil and its byproducts are digested by specific fungi as it degrades.

These incredible organisms can even help refine bio fuels. Whether or not we go as far as using fungal coffins to decompose our bodies into nutrients for plants — well, that’s a debate for another day.

But one thing is for sure: fungi have the undeniable potential to be used for a whole range of purposes we’re only beginning to grasp.

It could be the beer you drink, your next meal, antibiotics, a new faux leather bag or the packaging that delivered it to you — you never know what form the humble mushroom will take tomorrow.




Read more:
The secret life of fungi: how they use ingenious strategies to forage underground


The Conversation


Mitchell P. Jones, Postdoctoral researcher, Vienna University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How fungi’s knack for networking boosts ecological recovery after bushfires



Doug Beckers/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Adam Frew, University of Southern Queensland; Andy Le Brocque, University of Southern Queensland; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University; Eleonora Egidi, Western Sydney University; Jodi Price, Charles Sturt University, and Leanne Greenwood, Charles Sturt University

The unprecedented bushfires that struck the east coast of Australia this summer killed an estimated one billion animals across millions of hectares.

Scorched landscapes and animal corpses brought into sharp relief what climate-driven changes to wildfire mean for Australia’s plants and animals.

Yet the effects of fire go much deeper, quite literally, to a vast and complex underground world that we know stunningly little about, including organisms that might be just as vulnerable to fire, and vital to Australia’s ecological recovery: the fungi.

Fungi play a crucial role in ecosystems around the world. Amanita sp, Geastrum sp and Aseroe sp.
Adam Frew

Plants and fungi: a match made underground

The aftermath of wildfires can make landscapes appear devoid of life. Yet under the ash beds lies a vast living network of fungi.

One group of fungi, called arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi, form symbiotic relationships with most of the world’s land plants. This means most plants and AM fungi rely on each other to grow and thrive.

Fungi provide access to nutrients such as phosphorus, and plants provide carbon as sugar and fats.
Adam Frew via BioRender

Extensive networks of AM fungal mycelium (a vegetative part of a fungus, akin to plant roots) explore the soil to access nutrients beyond the reach of their plant partners. The mycelium forms a fungal underground highway, transporting the valuable nutrients back to the plants.




Read more:
The glowing ghost mushroom looks like it comes from a fungal netherworld


Beyond nutrients, AM fungi can influence all aspects of plant ecology, such as seedling establishment, plant growth, defence against herbivores, and competition between different plant species. In fact, the number of species and abundance of AM fungi determine the success and diversity of plants.

In return for the nutrients they provide, AM fungi receive sugar made by plants through photosynthesis. For many species, this means without a plant host the fungi won’t last.

The responses of plants and AM fungi to fire are therefore deeply intertwined: the recovery of one is dependent on the other. Yet ecologists are only beginning to learn how fire affects fungi and what role they might have in hastening ecosystem recovery following wildfires.

Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi colonising a plant root.
Adam Frew

Fungi and fire: what do we know?

Studies have shown fungi living near the soil surface are particularly susceptible to fire, often killed by high soil temperatures as the fire passes over. Fungi further below the surface are relatively more protected, and may provide the nuclei for recovery.

But, as with animals, surviving fire is only half the battle. When fire removes vegetation, it suddenly halts sugar and fats plants produce, delivered to the fungi below-ground.




Read more:
How you can help – not harm – wild animals recovering from bushfires


Another challenge is the ways fire influences the underground world, such as changes in soil acidity, soil carbon, nutrient dynamics, and soil water. For instance, soils with more acidity tend to have less diversity of AM fungi.

How exactly fungi and fire interact remains an ecological mystery. Coprinus sp.
Adam Frew

The combination of high temperatures and changed conditions appear to take a toll on fungi: a 2017 meta-analysis of 29 studies found fire reduces the number of fungal species by about 28%. And given the severity of last summer’s bushfires, we can expect that many fungal communities below the surface have been lost, too.

Lose fungi, lose function

When fire hits, the community of AM fungi may lose less resistant species. This is important because studies show different species of AM fungi are better at supporting their plant partners in different ways. Some are better at providing nutrients, while others are more helpful with defending plants from disease and herbivores.

Changes in the number and types of AM fungal species can strongly determine how well plants recover, and can influence the whole ecosystem after fire. For example, plants could be left more vulnerable to disease if fungi supporting native plant chemical or physical defences are reduced by fire.

Amanita muscaria (Fly agaric)
Adam Frew

Since we know fungi are particularly important to plants in times of ecological stress, their role may be paramount in harsh post-fire landscapes. But while firefighters and wildlife carers have gone to inspiring lengths to protect plants and animals, we know little about how to help AM fungi recovery from the bushfires, or if help is even necessary.

Helping fungi help ecosystems

Research from last year showed reintroducing AM fungal communities (usually as an inoculant or biofertiliser) to degraded and disturbed landscapes can increase plant diversity by around 70%, encourage recovery of native plants, and suppress invasive weeds.

Fire tends to change what species of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi are present in the soil as ecosystems recovery.
Adam Frew via BioRender

Taking a similar approach and actively putting fungi back into fire-affected environments could ensure more rapid or more complete recovery of native vegetation, including the survival of endangered plant species threatened by the fires.

However, it’s important to consider which AM fungi are reintroduced. They should be species normally present in the local area, and suited to support recovering plant communities.




Read more:
A rare natural phenomenon brings severe drought to Australia. Climate change is making it more common


So as climate change leads to more frequent and intense bushfires, could fungi form a fundamental component of fire recovery efforts? Maybe.

But there is so much we’re yet to learn about these ancient and complex relationships. We’re only beginning to scratch the surface.The Conversation

Adam Frew, Lecturer, University of Southern Queensland; Andy Le Brocque, Associate Professor, University of Southern Queensland; Dale Nimmo, Associate Professor in Ecology, Charles Sturt University; Eleonora Egidi, Researcher, Western Sydney University; Jodi Price, Senior Lecturer in Vegetation Ecology, Charles Sturt University, and Leanne Greenwood, PhD candidate, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The glowing ghost mushroom looks like it comes from a fungal netherworld



File 20190212 174883 1uap4o6.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
The ghost fungus emits an eerie green glow.
Alison Pouliot, Author provided

Alison Pouliot, Australian National University

Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.


It’s worth tolerating the mosquitoes and the disconcerting rustle of unseen creatures that populate forests after dark, for the chance to encounter the eerie pale green glow of a less-known inhabitant.

Australia is a land of extremes, of curious organisms with quirky adaptations. Even our ghosts are more perplexing than your regular spook, and you don’t need a Geiger counter or infrared camera to track them down. Ghosts feature fantastically in folklore across the globe, but Australia’s ghost collective has a special fungal addition. Stealing the limelight, or rather the twilight, is the ghost fungus, Omphalotus nidiformis.

Ghost fungi are large, common and conspicuous, yet they manage to escape the gaze of most. As interest in fungi grows in Australia, the ghost fungi is getting a curious new look-in.



The Conversation/Alison Pouliot

Fungi are well known for their perplexing traits and peculiar forms. One of the more mesmerising – and other-worldly – traits is luminosity. A conspicuous quirk, luminosity has been recognised for a good while. Aristotle (384–322 BC) was among the first to have reported terrestrial bioluminescence (bios meaning living and lumen meaning light) in the phenomenon of “glowing wood” or “shining wood” –luminescent mycelia in decomposing wood.

However, well before Aristotle’s time, Aboriginal Australians knew about the luminescence of fungi. Early settlers in Australia recorded the reactions of different Aboriginal groups to what we think was the ghost fungus. Some, such as the Kombumerri of southeastern Queensland, associated luminous fungi with evil spirits and supernatural activities of Dreamtime ancestors. West Australian Aboriginal people referred to the ghost fungus as Chinga, meaning spirit.

Ghost fungi often grow en masse in large overlapping clusters around the bases of both living and dead trees.
Alison Pouliot, Author provided

Similarly in Micronesia, some people destroyed luminous fungi believing them to be an evil omen, while others used them in body decoration, especially for intimidating enemies.

In California, miners believed them to mark the spot where a miner had died. This seemingly inexplicable glowing trait gave rise to rich and colourful folk histories.

Lighting up the night

The ghost fungus contains a light-emitting substance called luciferin (lucifer meaning light-bringing). In the presence of oxygen, luciferin is oxidised by an enzyme called luciferase. As a result of this chemical reaction, energy is released as a greenish light. The light from the ghost fungus is often subtle and usually requires quite dark conditions to see. To experience ghost fungi at their most spectacular you need to allow your eyes time to adjust to the darkness, and don’t use a torch.

Ghost fungi have been widely recorded across Australia, especially in the forests of the south-eastern seaboard. They often appear in large overlapping clusters around the bases of a variety of trees, commonly Eucalyptus, but also Acacia, Hakea, Melaleuca, Casuarina and other tree genera as well as understorey species.

The large funnel-shaped mushrooms (the reproductive part of the fungus) are variable in form and colour, but are mostly white to cream coloured with various shades of brown, yellow, green, grey, purple and black, usually around the centre of the cap. On the underside, the lamellae (radiating plates that contain the spores) are white to cream coloured and extend down the stipe (stem).

This adaptable fungus obtains its tucker as both a weak parasite of some tree species and as a saprobe, which means it gets nutrition from breaking down organic matter such as wood.

Young ghost fungi can appear remarkably similar to edible oyster (Pleurotus) mushrooms, but be warned, ghost fungi are toxic.
Alison Pouliot, Author provided

Although fungal bioluminescence has been well documented, little research has been done to establish why fungi go to the trouble of glowing. While some experiments have shown that bioluminescence attracts spore-dispersing insects to particular fungi, this appears not to be the case with the ghost fungus.

Researchers who tested whether insects are more readily attracted to the ghost fungus concluded that bioluminescence is more likely to be an incidental by-product of metabolism, rather than conferring any selective advantage.

Those who find this scientific explanation rather unimaginative might prefer to stick with the theory that these fungi help guide fairies (or perhaps a bilby or bandicoot) through the darkened forest.

If you stumble across ghost fungi in daylight, however, they look far less puzzling. It does bear a superficial resemblance to the delicious oyster mushroom (and were once classified in the same genus), but unfortunately they are toxic. Ghost fungi possess a powerful emetic that causes nausea and vomiting. (And who knows, it might even cause you to glow terrifyingly green…)

Returning to darkness

We live in the Age of Illumination, plagued by light pollution. Earth’s nights are getting brighter and many scientists are concerned about the effects on wildlife as well as how they stymie human appreciation of nature. Artificial lights disorient birds, especially those that migrate at night and other species such as hatching turtles that confuse artificial light with that of the moon. Exposure to artificial light also affects human health.

A nighttime wander through the forest reveals its nocturnal inhabitants and may reward one with the pleasures of finding ghost fungi. Only in darkness is their magic revealed.


Alison Pouliot will be launching her book on Australian fungi, The Allure of Fungi, in Melbourne, Daylesford, Apollo Bay and Shellharbour. For more details on these events go here.

Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.The Conversation

Alison Pouliot, , Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Alien Fungi


Friends of Tarra-Bulga National Park

Seems like not only plants and animals can be invasive. Yesterday, while walking along Forest Track, I spotted an unusual Fungi fruiting on a fallen log. It was a vivid orange colour and seemed to have an unusual pore arrangement on the underside. After snapping a few photos, I headed home to consult the field guides. Seeing nothing really to match, I uploaded the photo to http://www.Bowerbird.org.au  where a subscriber there quickly identified it as an exotic species, Favolaschia calocera otherwise known as Orange Pore Fungi.

Orange Pore Fungi - Favolaschia calocera, underside showing the pores. Orange Pore Fungi – Favolaschia calocera

This Fungi apparently is a recent arrival to Australia the first record of it is from 2005. It was first observed in Madagascar and has recently spread to a number of countries across the globe. According to Wikipedia it colonises ruderal sites (Wastelands/Roadsides) where it can become the dominate species. Fingers crossed it does not become a dominate feature of…

View original post 30 more words