Fungible Fungi

January 06, 2017

Tom Bruns shares the importance of fungi 

MushroomsBy Sonia Travaglini, UC Berkeley

We all know the cute, round button mushroom Agaricus bisporus in our British fry-ups and the delicate, slender enoki mushroom Flammulina velutipes in our Vietnamese pho—but there are millions of fungi species.

Professor Tom Bruns of the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at UC Berkeley studies the ecology and evolution of fungi. He is working to understand how plants depend on and live with fungi all across California. Bruns explores the symbiotic associations of fungi with plant roots, called mycorrhizae. His work helps scientists understand which fungal species should be selected for development of products based on how they grow, what they like to eat, and how they will interact with other species.

Bruns, whose favorite mushroom to eat is Boletus edulis (the porcini mushroom), knows just how important mushrooms are. Sitting in an office surrounded by various samples collected from the underground world of fungi, he remarks that up to a fifth of all known species on Earth are fungi, although the exact number is hotly debated. While explaining just how important fungi are, he notes that “without them, all our ecosystems would collapse.” Fungi recycle carbon on our planet and enable plants to access nutrients in exchange for being fed themselves, creating a relationship without which neither partner can survive. “Plants need fungi to find food at the root level. [Fungi] concentrate rare minerals by finding and concentrating elements like copper, potassium, and nitrogen in exchange for sugary food from the plant,” explains Bruns. He also points out that our own food chains rely upon fungi. Our favorite drinks rely on them, too; without yeast we cannot brew beer.


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