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The World and Nature of Fungi

Ecology and Conservation Studies Society, Birkbeck Free Lecture series.

Spring 2018: six Friday evenings: 9th February to 16th March, 18:30 to 20:00.Birkbeck, University of London.

Fungi are ubiquitous. Between 100 thousand and 120 thousand have been described and the total species is estimated to between 1.5 to 3.6 million. They are more numerous than vertebrates and plants, and just a little fewer than invertebrates. Fungi have rigid cell walls and mostly don’t move, like plants, but, like animals, they are not photosynthetic, produce extra-cellular enzymes and store compounds like glycogen. They are in a separate kingdom, the Eumycota, and molecular studies suggest they are monophyletic. The Eumycota include the familiar macro-fungi, the Ascomycetes and Basidiomycetes; but also some less well known groups of micro-fungi and moulds, the chytrids, Mucor and its relatives and the Glomeromycetes (which are mycorrhizal). Others once considered to be micro-fungi, like Saprolegnia, Pythium and Phytophthora, are now not, partly because they have cellulose cell walls. They are more closely related to diatoms and brown algae.

Many fungi consume plant remains (leaf litter and dead wood) and sometimes animal remains. Many are parasites, on plants (herbs to trees, including crops) and on animals (from insects to man), and some even parasitize other fungi. Some saprophytic and parasitic species cause damage to our materials and buildings. Many fungi live in mutualistic relationships with algae (as lichens), with land plants (mycorrhizas) and with animals (e.g. leaf-cutter ants, some termites). Many micro-fungi may simply live in plants without fitting any of the above categories. They are termed endophytes. Fungi are eaten by many invertebrates, including mites, beetles and molluscs. We have many uses for fungi, in antibiotic production (penicillin), in fermentation (beer and wine), for the production of industrial enzymes, and as pesticides. Fungal forays collect the fruiting bodies of edible species (chanterelle, blewit, field mushroom, etc.), but can also be very useful in generating records of the fruiting of fungal communities at specific sites. Some foray data collected over many decades has shown changes in the timing of fruiting linked to climate change.

Fungi are obviously of great importance, yet their study at universities is poorly covered, it seems appropriate that this series shall be looking at some aspects of the world and nature of fungi.

9th February - Recording fungi in the 21st Century - the challenges and problems for both enthusiasts and professionals. Geoffrey Kibby, Associate Researcher Mycology, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; author of many guides to mushrooms and toadstools.

16th February - Old trees and fungi and biological continuity. Ted Green, Founder President of Ancient Trees Forum, honorary lecturer Imperial College, University of London, Vice President of the International Tree Foundation and Conservation Consultant to the Crown Estate, Windsor.

23rd February - Fungal symbiosis with plants. Martin Bidartondo, Reader in Molecular Ecology, Imperial College London & Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

2nd March - Tackling emerging fungal threats to animal health, food security and ecosystem resilience. Matthew Fisher, Professor of Fungal Disease Epidemiology, Imperial College London

9th March - Opportunistic fungi and damage to heritage buildings and collections. Sophie Downes, Birkbeck Biology

16th March - Ash dieback. Maryam Rafiki, Researcher, Jodrell Laboratory, Kew.

Further details, including the programme & venue, will be posted at or email:

A reading list for this series can be downloaded here.