„It has been only two days so far and we have already discovered 24 new fungal species. And there’s yet three day’s work to come,“ said Urmas Kõljalg, professor of mycology and head of University of Tartu Natural History Museum, when we spoke to him during the 22nd Nordic Mycological Congress, taking place from 10-15 September.
24 species for two days is not a child’s play, considering that usually 40-50 species are discovered within a year, says Kõljalg: „It is thanks to the fact that we have 60 top researchers and experts working in the field for few days. Local experts could never collect and determine all the species in Estonia, it takes time and certain type of expertise to find different fungal species.”
Right now, scientific databases (http://elurikkus.ut.ee) include more than 7000 fungal species recorded for Estonia. During this conference they found nearly 600 species.
Still, discovery of summer truffles (Tuber aestivum) – highly priced fungal species which is commonly found around Mediterranean Sea, but never before seen in Estonia – remains the highlight of the congress. “What is more, it was discovered by a trained dog from Sicily, who is also here for the conference. These dogs have been trained to recognize specific smells, so it is easier for them to find certain fungi, for example truffles,” explains Kõljalg.
Generally fungi can be found among dead wood, moss bark, on trees, soil, etc. “Finding the summer truffle is the most fascinating finding, as it is the first time summer truffles have been found so far in the north,” says Kõljalg.
Overall, it takes a lot of knowledge and time to find fungi, usually it is accompanied with technology starting from microscope and ending with labs set up in the woods, so that the experts can analyze the DNA of the recently found species.
Analytical part is vital, as 80-90% of fungal species around the world are yet to discover. However, when a new species is discovered its DNA data will be added into UNITE database (http://unite.ut.ee ). UNITE is a global database developed by the nordic scientists since 2003 and lead by the University of Tartu.
Although nowadays global databases are getting more and more common, in many fields, UNITE was quite unique when it was created 12 years ago. “Instead of adding data to their own computer based databases, people were using web browser to upload and manage their data in the web. What is more, the idea of “cloud” was not prevalent during that time,” says Kõljalg, one of the creators of UNITE.
Yet now UNITE has become the world leading database both for mycologists and ecologists. In 2014 it was used by more than 18 000 unique users, most of them coming from USA and China, but also from Germany, Sweden and Estonia. All together it was used by scientists from 71 different countries.
“Data adding is getting more and more important because within few minutes we can compare fungal samples from all around the world. If a new species is discovered its DNA sequence is determined and added to the database. It helps determine whether the other fungi comes from the same family etc,” says Kõljalg. Now UNITE has information about more than half a million DNA sequence based Species Hypotheses and the database is also used by medical institutions.
The success of UNITE is not a surprise, as Estonia has a long tradition of world’s top mycologists. Three mycologists from University of Tartu – Urmas Kõljalg, Leho Tedersoo, Erast Parmasto are among top 1% in the world when it comes to total citations for their fields. Two of them, prof Kõljalg and dr. Tedersoo are continuing their research.
When we asked from Urmas Kõljalg, what is the reason behind the success, it’s not a surprise that he mentions several factors. Firstly, Estonia is quite an environment for mycologists, as the area in middle latitude is rich in different fungal species, especially as climate change is bringing new species to the area. However, the mecca of fungi still remains in latitudes close to Mediterranean Sea where the highest number of fungi species are to be found. So instead, according to Kõljalg, the success lies behind having already three generations of world class mycologists and keeping them in Estonia motivating and teaching the next generation of mycologists.
This article was supported by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.