Fungi changed Catherine Marciniak’s life.

“I went down that rabbit hole, and just never came back out,” the documentary filmmaker says.

But we’re not talking psychedelic mushrooms or eating an incredible portobello on toast. 

She’s part of a large group of non-scientists who are photographing, understanding, and identifying a kingdom of life that in their opinion, has been neglected by scientific institutions.

“Globally we have only described 155,000 species of fungi out of potentially 2 to 5 million species, with some scientists speculating up to 11 million,” Ms Marciniak says. 

Some species of mushroom have been photographed, but not identified. (Supplied: Stephen Axford)

To put that into perspective, the latest Numbers of Living Species in Australia and the World report estimates there are 300,000 plant and 1.4 million animal species described worldwide. 

In Australia alone, there may be up to 250,000 species of fungus, and less than 12,000 of those have been described. 

While Australians have a national pride around our unique mammals and plants, Australia’s enchanting fungal species just don’t hold the same place in our hearts. 

So why is Australia — and the world — so far behind in our understanding of this diverse group of organisms? 

And why are non-scientists having to fill in the gap?

Fascinating fungi

Over millennia, humans have managed to expertly wield a very small group of fungi. Our beer and bread are made from an almost identical group of fungi called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, sometimes referred to as brewer’s yeast or baker’s yeast.

The three most common mushrooms bought in the grocery store (cup, Swiss brown and portobello) are all a species of fungus called Agaricus bisporus grown in slightly different ways or for longer periods of time.

But outside of the niche human ecosystem, a plethora of fungi undertake a wide variety of jobs in the natural world.  

Fungal species Bisporella citrina is a “recycler” of wood. (Supplied: Stephen Axford)

The recyclers — or decomposers — are the group most people are familiar with. These species of fungi can break down tree trunks, leaf litter or other decaying matter and make nutrients available to other plants. 

Then we have the parasites — the bane of gardeners. Blights, rusts, spots and moulds on plants can all be caused by types of parasitic fungus. 

And while some species of fungus are deadly for plants and animals, there’s another type which almost every plant can’t live without — plant partners.

These mycorrihizal fungi live alongside root systems to provide indigestible nutrients to the plant in exchange for energy. Up to 90 per cent of plants have associations with fungi in their root systems.

According to Jasmin Packer, a conservation biologist at the University of Adelaide, these fungi make plants what they are.

“Trees can’t grow above 2 metres — they can’t be trees — unless they’ve got their plant partner,” Dr Packer says.

And many species of fungi have multiple functions. For instance, the Australian truffle, which is a plant partner for a variety of native trees and plants, is also an important food group for the bandicoot. 

The slimy green waxcap (Gliophorus graminicolor) is only found in Australia and New Zealand. (Supplied: Stephen Axford)

Australia playing catch up

Dr Packer remembers a moment of awe when she visited friends in Europe and realised all the ways they deeply understood their local environment. 

“The knowledge of their ecosystems and the connections to those ecosystems was multigenerational,” she says. 

“The one I really remember was the fire fungus.”

Her friends casually pointed to a fungus, and told her a story about it being used by their ancestors to transport fire from camp to camp. 

“It gave me goosebumps.”

While many countries in Europe have a culture of foraging or understanding the mushrooms in their local areas, Australia has reused many names of similar looking Northern Hemisphere mushrooms for local varieties. 

The anemone stinkhorn (Aseroe rubra), collected in 1792, was the first native Australian fungus described. (Supplied: Stephen Axford)

Only recently have scientific institutions started to investigate First Nations’ knowledge of fungi.

Dr Packer has been collaborating with Sherie Bruce, an Arrernte PhD candidate whose research focuses on recording Aboriginal mushroom knowledge across Australia.

“So much knowledge has been disconnected but still exists in Country and Culture. We need to pay attention and listen,” Ms Bruce says.

“The exciting thing is, we’re starting to catch up.”

Difficult to study 

Fungi are not an easy group to work with or investigate, especially compared to plants and animals. 

For instance, fungi that sprout mushrooms or other fruiting bodies need to be caught at the exact right time, according to mycologist Brett Summerell, who is the chief botanist at the Botanic Gardens of Sydney.

“They may only appear once a year, or once every five years, or once every 10 years depending on the environmental conditions,” Professor Summerell says. 

Entomopathogenic fungi kill insects through their exoskeleton. (Supplied: Stephen Axford)

These mushrooms then need to be picked, dried, and put in a collection in a botanic garden around the country to be studied. 

“A lot of the work in terms of understanding fungal flora has focused on those species that cause humans problems.”

This is how Professor Summerall started out — researching plant pathogens — but he now researches microfungi.

“Most of the work I’ve done has been predominantly on ascomycetes, or to use the derogatory term ‘mould’,” he says. 

“A completely unimpressive term for what are some pretty amazing organisms.”

So while some researchers do study fungi, there’s almost no research funding for identifying unknown species of fungi. 

Instead, citizen scientists are taking up the mantle, regularly finding unknown species around Australia. 

Filling the gap

Filmmaker Catherine Marciniak’s partner, photographer Stephen Axford, has also caught the mushroom bug, and together the two of them set up film and photography company Planet Fungi. 

Coprinopsis pulchricaerulea was discovered by nature photographer Stephen Axford in 2012. (Supplied: Stephen Axford)

In 2012, Mr Axford stumbled across a small blue fungus while walking in a subtropical forest in northern New South Wales.

“Blue is a very unusual colour in nature,” Ms Marciniak says.

“He thought it was a blue piece of paper.”

After taking plenty of photos, he sent it off to a mycologist to see if it could be identified.

DNA analysis confirmed it was a Coprinopsis. This surprised the couple as that genus consists of inkcap mushrooms, which look nothing like the blue specimen.

Further investigation followed and 10 years after that walk in the rainforest the species was described as Coprinopsis pulchricaerulea, providing scientists with new information about the genus. 

Ms Marciniak and Mr Axford have documented three other species of fungi that are yet to be formally identified.

The duo are part of Fungimap, a citizen science organisation which records fungi across Australia. 

“I would like to think we’re the NGO [non-governmental organisation] speaking on behalf of Australia’s fungi,” says Dr Packer, who is the vice president of the organisation. 

The group started out with citizen scientists taking photos and filling in forms to send to the organisation by post, then email. 

“About four years ago, we went to iNaturalist, and then it just skyrocketed,” Dr Packer says. 

Using iNaturalist, a species identification database, the group has recorded more than 100,000 observations and almost 2,000 species of fungi around Australia. 

Mushrooms like this parasite Cyttaria septentrionalis don’t have a traditional toadstool shape. (Supplied: Stephen Axford)

Right now, Fungimap focuses on mushrooms — the fruiting body of the fungus — as this is the most obvious part of the organism.

But the decrease in price and improved availability of DNA testing means future fungus finds could be done by testing a bag of soil. 

Most of the fungus is located under the ground, so just a tablespoon of soil can uncover DNA fragments from about 100 species.

This creates many more questions for the field though, such as, can you identify a species without ever seeing what it looks like?

“Mycologists are starting to debate if maybe we don’t need to have a specimen, but maybe we could start to describe species on the basis of DNA profiles,” Professor Summerall says. 

“We may need to change the way in which we think about how species are described in the future.”

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