Life savers, pollution fighters, jet saboteurs - the facts about fungi

Chris Mowbray explores the mysteries of mycology

HUNDREDS of fungi lovers are determined to make 1996 the year in which humankind at last recognises the importance of the mushroom in the greater scheme of things.

That, at any rate, is the intention of the British Mycological Society, which is celebrating its centenary and is planning a major exhibition, "Fungus 100", aimed at persuading the uninitiated that fungi are fun. In fact, not only fun. The society's research shows that the estimated 1,500,000 species of fungi worldwide have enormous potential for both good and bad.

They are a vital part of the planet's ecosystem, a valuable source of life-saving antibiotics, producers of enzymes used in industry, enhancers of tree growth, fighters of pollution and insect controllers.

On the downside, they have been responsible for organ rejection problems in early transplant surgery and for causing secondary ailments in Aids sufferers, while other fungal species, which thrive on oil, have recently eroded the fuel injection system of Harrier jump jets, attacked the engines in Royal Naval vessels and feasted on art treasures at the Tate Gallery.

The study of fungi has come a long way since botanists first went out into the woods and hedgerows of Victorian Britain to document the multi- coloured profusion of mushrooms and toadstools growing there.

At Easter the centenary celebrations of that research will get underway with a traditional "fungi foray" in one of the places where it all began. In 1867 the Woolhope naturalist and field club in Herefordshire decided to specialise in mycology.Their first forays uncovered, among other things, the world's most feted toadstool, the Fly Agaric, which with its red cap and white spots, is familiar from the illustrations to the children's stories of Enid Blyton.

Mary English, a contemporary author, wrote: "All British mycologists who could possibly get to Hereford did so, intent on the enjoyment of the heady mixture of days spent in the beautiful countryside in excited pursuit of rare species of toadstool and evenings of friendly social intercourse over good food and wine followed by learned discourses and earnest exchange of views."

When the Woolhope club and the Yorkshire Naturalists' Union jointly founded the society at Selby in 1896, they maintained the convivial tradition.

The society has 750 associate members, largely expert amateurs. In one recent foray, they documented 2,000 species of fungi, including a number which were previously unknown to science. The society believes yet more British fungi are waiting to be discovered.

One enthusiast has become an expert on insect pathogens - fungi which live on insects as fleas do on dogs - and has isolated a species which lives only on one particular leg of a rare beetle.

The 1,250 full members of the society are professional mycologists working in industry, research and teaching establishments. About half come from continental Europe, Asia, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand.

Many are attending a three-day centenary symposium at Sheffield in April at which post-graduate students will talk about their research. Other events include a week-long conference organised by the Yorkshire enthusiasts and a trip to France.

In September the "Fungus 100" Grand Exhibition takes place at the Royal Horticultural Society in London. It will include lectures on such varied topics as magic mushrooms, moulds, yeasts, fungi products, marine fungi (yes, they even get under the sea), fungi in medicine and biotechnology and their influence on arts and crafts.

The event will be opened by Stefan Buczacki, the host of Classic FM's Gardening Forum, and it is hoped to broadcast a programme from the exhibition, to which the public will be admitted free.

"The more you study fungi, the more you find out about them," says Dr Stephen Moss, the society's general secretary and Reader in Mycology at Portsmouth University. "Many are beautiful to look at, but these are in the minority. You do not even see the majority and yet they are important to all aspects of life." It is for this reason that the society has compiled a red list of threatened species and is opposed to the large-scale collection of edible varieties.

The society recently even gave a crash course in mycology to a group of building workers renovating a mansion in Wales so they did not damage a nearby fungi-rich lawn which is a potential Site of Special Scientific Interest.

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