The facts and figures contained in the pages of this report and accompanying website (stateoftheworldsfungi.org) will probably come as a total revelation to many people. The first of its kind outlining the state of the world’s fungi, the report highlights just how important fungi are to all life on Earth. 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. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has housed a Fungarium since 1879. In fact, many notable figures came to examine specimens within it, including Charles Darwin and the children’s author Beatrix Potter (who was a keen mycologist). The Fungarium at Kew is the largest in the world and now has over 1.25 million specimens, a number that is growing daily as the global significance of this kingdom becomes more and more apparent. It therefore seemed appropriate that Kew should lead this endeavour to examine the current status of knowledge of Kingdom Fungi. In devising this volume, however, we have 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. This volume is split into three parts. First, we present an understanding of current knowledge of the diversity and distribution of fungi, new discoveries and evolutionary relationships. Next, we examine some of the key and potential uses of fungi for everyday life, we look at the global impact of positive plant–fungal interactions, and we review the vast insights gained from knowledge of their genomes. For our country focus, we turn our attention to what is known about fungi in China; fungi have been an integral part of Chinese medicine, food and culture for thousands of years resulting in a knowledge base that is probably the best in the world. Finally, we look at the state of knowledge of some of the global challenges associated with fungi, including plant diseases, the impacts of climate change on fungi, and global efforts to conserve them. 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.
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