Fabulous Fungi

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By Valentina Diaz


Half way through Autumn and it is a magical time; the gold and amber leaves decorate the street-scape and a plethora of creatures thrive in the gentle Autumn humidity.

Amongst the second largest group of known organisms, just 5% of fungi in the world have been formally described.

Fungi can have high aesthetic appeal, have a wonderful diversity of form and colour and some species are just spectacular.

Fabulous fungi are found in all major Australian habitats including deserts and semi-arid areas, swamps and woodland, grasslands, rainforests, streams, rivers and estuaries; from sea level to the peaks of the highest mountains.

We are actually not even half way to categorising the remaining 95% of existing fungi.

Australia in particular relies heavily on the work of overseas taxonomists as for some orders of fungi there are no active workers here at all.

Little wonder every now and then the occasional fungi enthusiast fails at their taxonomist attempt and after making a tasty dish of picked fruiting bodies (the fascinating above ground part most of us are acquainted with) falls ill or worse still, to their death.

The science of taxonomy is concerned with the classification, naming and identification of species and unfortunately the research shows that agriculture-orientated collecting of plant specimens, has historically been invariably relegated to a spare-time activity.

Fungi are an important part of our eco-system and make an important food source for many animals including insects, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles and there may be important roles for plant pathogens in the eradication of troublesome weeds. Many fungi form mycorrhizas which are literally fungus-roots.

Mycorrhizas are involved in plant nutrient and water uptake, can produce plant hormones, and may confer resistance to water stress, tolerance to heavy metals and salt, and give protection against plant pathogens. Research has shown that mycorrhizal fungi may also be integral in the re-establishment of plant communities after fire.

Fungal pathogens should also be recognised for their significance in shaping the size and structure of individual plant populations and whole communities.

Some Australian species of fungi are already known to produce antibiotics and are a large, mainly unexplored source of biologically active compounds.

Decline of fungi may also indicate pollution, and the presence of fruiting bodies of mycorrhizal fungi may indicate soil health and tree productivity.

They even have commercial applications which include degradation of petroleum hydrocarbons, coal tars, pesticides and chlorinated solvents.

Some Mushrooms can be poisonous and contain a variety of toxins that can differ markedly in toxicity.

Symptoms of mushroom poisoning may vary from gastric upset to life-threatening organ failure resulting in death. Serious symptoms do not always occur immediately after eating, often not until the toxin attacks the kidney or liver, sometimes days or weeks later.

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