Professor Whalley reminded us that this is the B.M.S. Centenary Year and that one of their objectives is to "sell" fungi. He produced some interesting and at times very amusing slides to illustrate the various points that he was making. Everyone knows at least one fungus and he began by relating one of the many traveller's tales about Amanita muscaria which must be the best known and loved fungus of them all and which has always been closely associated with religious and other rites. One version of a common legend about this species is the story that among the tribes in Kamchatka the women used to collect this fungus and chew it into bits to prepare it for consumption by their menfolk who subsequently fell into a trance. Some time later they would urinate into a copper pan for others to drink so that they could share the "trip". We do not recommend it for such use today though fungi are currently important for their drug-containing properties, albeit purely for medicinal purposes. Many fungi are safely edible though in Britain we tend to be more cautious than our fellow Europeans who consume many varieties including several Boletes and Tricholomas. In the far east other varieties are also consumed. Termitomyces, the termite fungus, is considered a great delicacy and may be purchased in the markets of Bangkok.

The move to popularise the study of fungi in the field began in 1994 at the 5th Mycological Congress in Vancouver and has continued since then. Unfortunately, professional interest in fieldwork tends now to be on the decline, except in the Far East. Consequently, last year the B.M.S. established a core group of MP's to support mycology, for fungi deserve support as much as other living organisms do. Hawksworth estimates that there are probably more than two million species of which fewer than 5% are known. They exhibit enormous variation in lifestyle and bio-chemical activity.

Ecologically they are vital. Those species which are mycorrhizal form symbiotic relationships with other plants and are essential for healthy growth particularly on marginal land. 80% of the world's plants that have been investigated are found to have mycorhizzal relationships with fungi. For example, the Ceps, a popular edible Bolete, forms a mycorrhizal association with trees which enables them to utilise phosphates from the surrounding soil. Fungi are a vital factor in the recolonisation of waste land and in the regeneration of forests in the tropics, as Roy Watling discovered in his research in Malaysia. We know now that a consequence of air pollution is increased soil acidification which, in turn, leads to a breakdown in mycorrhizal activity and subsequent serious damage to plant health and is a possible cause for the decline of forests.

Other types of fungi which are not mycorrhizal can break down complex organic compounds and make them available for re-use as nutrients. For example, Phallus impudicus (the "Stinkhorn") rots down wood with this result. Equally, bracket fungi break down lignin and cellulose in wood. These fungi do not destroy, they re-cycle. There is an interest in harnessing this activity to make paper without the high chemical input of present processes. However, from man's point of view, this "breaking down" activity may be counter-productive on occasion. It is said that when the "Queen Charlotte", an early 19th century naval vessel, infected with dry rot, as was common in those days, fired its first salvo, it immediately sank because of its rotten condition. The famine in Ireland resulting from potato blight is another example. In this context we do not admire the ability of fungi to break down and re-cycle.

As was mentioned earlier, Man has always used various fungi as food, not always with beneficial results of course. In England we have tended to "play safe" and to restrict ourselves to a few easily recognised and well-tested varieties for the table. However we are becoming more adventurous as evidenced by the species (e.g. Pleurotus ostreatus - the "Oyster mushroom") which are now produced commercially and are currently to be found on the shelves of the local supermarkets. It is interesting to note though that one of the most popular, i.e. Ceps, is found only in the wild still since no-one has yet found a way of cultivating them. Many more species are collected in the wild and eaten in the far East than in Europe. Professor Whalley referred to an occasion when, while working in Thailand, he and two of his colleagues visited a market in Chiang-Mai and listed the wide variety of species to be found on sale there (see The Mycologist, May 1994). These amounted to a dozen and did not include the further eight species which are known to be commonly eaten in that country. The most highly prized delicacy is the Termitomyces, the termite fungus, which costs considerably more than the rest. The most expensive edible species in the West is of course the truffle. Black truffles, or "Black Diamonds" as they are popularly known, may cost as much as 80 each in London. This species grows with oak. Professor Whalley confessed to owning one which is now ten years old! This priceless specimen will be opened and shown in London during the Centenary Celebrations in September. (No doubt under armed guard and with the protection of security alarms? - R.C.). Fungi are also cultivated for use in the production of other food-stuffs. 'Quorn' is a myco-protein derived from a Fusarium species and produced both by I.C.I. and by the Rank-Hovis organisation. No-one needs to be reminded of the important role a fungus plays in the production of one of our staple foods, bread, and, more particularly perhaps, in the production of one of our favourite drinks, alcohol.

The role of fungi in medicine should be mentioned next. One of the most famous antibiotics - penicillin - discovered by Fleming, was derived from a mould. The present top five best-selling antibiotics in the world are produced from fungi. Our life-expectancy without them would be much lower. We know that they have been used for medicinal purposes for many centuries. Archaeologists discovered remains of Bovista nigrescens, one of the common Puff-Balls, in the Roman remains at Vindolanda, an ancient border fort near Hadrian's Wall. What had they been used for? Not for food because the fruit-bodies were mature. Perhaps for carrying fire? But there was no evidence to suggest this. It is thought that the most likely explanation is that they were used for stopping the blood-flow from battle wounds, a known effective use. More recently, Ergot was used to advance labour in childbirth. Pharmaceutical companies are becoming increasingly interested in investigating the simple cures used by poor, primitive peoples in the tropics. One tribe in Thailand uses ground bracket fungi as part of a lotion for very sick children. Mangroves are rich in fungi some of which are thought to contain a possible future cure for cancer. Professor Gareth Jones of Portsmouth University is currently exploring this possibility. But the mangroves are disappearing to be replaced by rice paddy fields and much of the tropical rain forest is vanishing too because of illegal logging. We damage the environment at our peril.

Only a few of the possible uses of fungi have been mentioned. Others include the use of lichens for pollution-monitoring, the experimental use of mycelial growth in molecular biology and the increasing use of fungi for the biological control of insect pests and plant pathogens.

Unfortunately, more money is needed for increased research into all of these uses, for conservation projects and for educational programmes. It is hoped that the programme of activities during our Centenary Year will bring home to the public the importance of fungi and of devoting more funding to their cause.

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