Fungi play key biological, economic and medicinal roles in many areas, including agriculture and food production; health and medicine; death and decay; and research and drug discovery. They have been found in every ecosystem where they have been sought, including deserts, glacial ice and deep-sea thermal vents.
Nevertheless, fungi are among the least understood life forms. Only 80,000 of an estimated 1.5 million species have been identified. Recently, however, hundreds of scientists from dozens of countries have joined forces to study these lowly organisms in a more systematic, collaborative way than ever before.
Through two projects funded by the National Science Foundation Deep Hypha and Assembling the Fungal Tree of Life these mycologists are focusing on identifying new species and mapping out the fungal evolutionary tree. (Hypha refers to the threadlike filaments that form the vegetative part of a fungus.)
A comprehensive phylogenetic framework of fungi is necessary to understand the history of life and the evolution of ecosystems, says Greg Mueller, a principal investigator on Deep Hypha and curator and chair of botany at The Field Museum.
ATFOL, which involves scientists from Duke University, Clark University, University of Minnesota and Oregon State University, will develop broad datasets of molecular and subcellular characters of fungi. These continuously updated databases will be accessible via the Web.
Deep Hypha is a loose organization of scientists working to foster discussion, education and research aimed at fleshing out evolutionary relationships of all things fungi. Its third biannual meeting will be held at The Field Museum in Chicago, April 10-12. Up to 150 mycologists are expected to participate.