Despite early recognition of the importance of fungi for human well-being, and archaeological evidence for human uses of fungi in food, drinks and medicines going back at least 6,000 years, historically they have remained in the shadows when compared with research on plants and animals. In fact, many of the early writings on fungi assumed that they were simple or lower plants. It wasn’t until detailed work on fungal features including the cell wall, methods for digesting and storing food, and DNA, that it became apparent that they are in fact a kingdom in their own right, closer to animals than plants. For example, most fungi have a cell wall composed primarily of chitin, a substance that is also found in the exoskeletons of insects and shells of crabs and lobsters.
The realisation that fungi are closer to animals than plants is, however, only one of a number of remarkable facts to emerge in the past few decades. It is now becoming apparent that these organisms, which often cannot be seen with the naked eye and spend vast parts of their life cycle underground or inside plants and animals, are responsible for incredibly important processes; these include global cycling of nutrients, carbon sequestration, and even the prevention of desertification in some drought-prone regions of the world. Fungi also underpin products and processes that we rely heavily on in aspects of everyday life, from critical drugs (including statins, the class of medication used to lower blood cholesterol), to synthesis of biofuels, to cleaning up the environment through bioremediation. Some have multiple uses, for example species of Penicillium have uses as diverse as in antibiotics, the synthesis of third-generation contraceptive pills and cheese production. The global market in edible mushrooms is also huge and increasing.
But some species of fungi can wreak havoc. Many gardeners will know only too well the problems with rusts, wilts and mildews caused by certain species of fungi, and throughout the world there is significant concern related to the spread of fungal pathogens that are devastating crops and wild plant communities – a threat which seems to be increasing with climate change. Understanding the pathogenicity, hosts and methods of spread of fungal pathogens is of critical importance to global biosecurity.
In devising this volume, Kew has worked extensively in global partnership to pull together leading mycological researchers from across the world to provide an up-to-date synthesis of our current knowledge of the state of the world’s fungi.
From this volume it is clear that Fungi should definitely be viewed on a par with the plant and animal kingdoms and that we have only just started to scratch the surface of knowledge of this incredible and diverse group of organisms. What also becomes apparent is that when looking for nature-based solutions to some of our most critical global challenges, fungi could provide many of the answers.