Hidden fungi: illuminating fungal dark matter
Fungi are ancient organisms that have been around for a billion years. Despite comprising a diverse group of organisms with unique characteristics and ecological roles, Kingdom Fungi remains largely unexplored and hidden away.
Often overshadowed by the charismatic Plants and Animals, Fungi are estimated to number between 11.7 and 13.2 million species, of which only about 150,000, a tiny fraction, have been formally described. The unexplored majority are known as the fungal ‘dark matter’.
The concept of fungal dark matter gained prominence with the advent of high-throughput sequencing technologies. With the application of metagenomic approaches, researchers can now extract DNA directly from environmental samples, offering a glimpse into the hidden fungal diversity, informing us of their presence in unsuspected habitats – from the poles to the deep-sea floor.
However, these hidden fungi are often unculturable and cannot be grown in the lab using traditional techniques. This means that fungal DNA from samples cannot be linked to a physical specimen, limiting scientists' ability to study and classify these invisible organisms. Overcoming this hurdle demands innovative study techniques and protocols for naming species known only from DNA sequences.
Another intriguing aspect of fungal dark matter is its potential for yielding novel bioactive compounds and therapeutic agents. Historically, fungi have been a rich source of bioactive molecules, including antibiotics and immunosuppressants. With the identification of previously unknown species, scientists can hope to unearth a treasure trove of untapped natural products that could have profound implications for medicine, agriculture, and industry.
Moreover, unravelling the mysteries of the hidden fungi holds significant implications for ecosystem management and conservation. Many fungi have specific ecological roles, and their interactions with other organisms are critical for ecosystem stability.
Despite their life-sustaining role, less than 700 species of fungi have been assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), lagging far behind their assessment goal of 14,500. Alarmingly, the ongoing loss of biodiversity means that species may be going extinct at faster rate than they are discovered. As only organisms that have been officially described can be protected by conservation laws, the hidden fungi may disappear before we have had the chance to explore their untapped potential.
Kingdom Fungi represents mysterious and captivating organisms that deserve more public and scientific attention. The advent of DNA sequencing has provided a valuable tool for discovering the hidden fungal diversity, but challenges remain in accurately describing and understanding these organisms. By dedicating efforts to explore the enigmatic world of fungi, we can foster a deeper appreciation for their ecological significance, exploit their potential applications, and safeguard their existence for generations to come.