Today we’ll cross from light fiction to some of the real-life mysteries in mycology. Let's look at "How do we know which mushroom we’ve found?" Well, we know how it might be done if we were on a Crime Scene Investigation show! Such programs usually open with a question, often about the identity of a culprit. Fifty-five minutes and three clusters of pharmaceutical ads later, we know “who-dun-it” courtesy of the clever people in lab coats using the latest DNA identification techniques.
Oh, would that mushroom identification was so easy! It is absolutely possible to collect tissue from a mushroom and send it into a lab for DNA workup. Doing so has greatly advanced our understanding of the fungal species on our planet.
However, when a mushroom is plucked from the Northwest woods, there needs to be something to compare it to.
When a human fossil was found in Cheddar Gorge, England, scientists were able to extract DNA and compare “Cheddar” Man’s DNA to known groups of human DNA. “Cheddar” man is believed to have died a violent death about 9,000 years ago. Using human DNA details accumulated over many years, scientists were able to tell a great deal about "Cheddar" man, including his eye color (blue or green) and his skin color (very dark), simply by working from the DNA sequences. The scientists were even able to find a direct descendant (A history teacher living in nearby Somerset).
But our neighborhood fungi have not been busy sending in cheek swabs to on-line DNA services or to university genetics divisions. Mycologists are still in the early stages of describing the fungi on the planet. There are hundreds of thousands of fungal species that haven’t been sampled. We know that some species can appear in more than one color or form. For a deep dive into the question, “Is it a new species?,” take a look at Dr. Jean Lodge’s write-up on the North American Mycoflora Project blog page: http://mycoflora.org/index.php/resources/blog/111-is-it-a-new-species-or-variety
Meanwhile this story is accompanied by photos of some “fairy bonnets” or Mycena mushrooms taken from the same tree about three months apart. The early ones are bright purple. The January Mycena are more moist and very brown. Are they the same species? What do you think?
And the questions keep coming.
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