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What will be the fate of the world’s fungi?

In global plans to protect plants and animals, fungi are being overlooked. An Egyptian educator and an Egyptian mycologist explain the dilemma.

By Gihan Samy Soliman and Ahmed Abdel-Azeem, Ph.D.

Fungi are a mega-diverse group of organisms, currently estimated at 1.5 million species. Of these, only 8-10 percent have been discovered and described. At the current rate of description, a total inventory will take 1,290 years (Hawksworth 2003). While this is somewhat of a concern to mycologists, the more pressing issue is the relative lack of attention being paid to the species already named and described, especially relative to other organisms.

Mycologists – or scientists who specialize in the study of fungi – call this flora and faunaism. This bias is very apparent at the international level. Global biodiversity is a central concern for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN assesses threats to biodiversity by assessing the status of individual species. These reports are called Red Lists, and they are the only internationally accepted evaluations of the level of threat of extinction for individual species. The Red Lists are created at the national and international levels, and are accepted at the global scale. Naturally, these lists, and subsequent conservation priorities, have a bias towards well-known groups of species.

Only three fungi are listed; two lichens and the Sicilian endemic fungus Pleurotus nebrodensis (Dahlberg et al. 2009). In contrast, as a whole, the global IUCN Red Lists comprise almost 45,000 species, of which 26,000 are vertebrates.

Furthermore, fungi are not included in any international conservation agreements.

Kernia nitida, a fungus growing on herbivore animal dung. Copyright Abdel-Azeem, 2003. Used with permission.

Conservation of biodiversity in a developing country such as Egypt is surely facing many challenges in spite of the fact that Egypt has been among the nations that signed the Convention on Biodiversity (Rio 1992), ratified in 1994. Moreover, conservation of fungi is becoming critical, as it is facing same challenges with the least concern or protection from the legislative and executive authorities. The Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs, speaking of biodiversity as fauna and flora only, and fungi are listed under the kingdom of plants in spite of the fact that the idea has been considered that fungi form a separate kingdom distinct from plants and animals (Whittaker 1969).

Although the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity extends protection to all groups of organisms, it is worded in terms of “animals, plants and micro-organisms” while fungi don’t actually fit well into any of these categories. Therefore, fungi have been universally overlooked in planning and preparation of the world biodiversity conservation plans.

David Minter (2011) mentioned in his unpublished article (Botanists and Zoologists: Fungal Conservation Needs You) that fungi are not as “photogenic” as birds, bees and trees. He notes that that biodiversity illustrations and logos – such as the one below – don’t contain any trace of them.

Decade-of-Biodiversity logo. Biodiversity logos and illustrations typically do not include fungi.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, the National Biodiversity Unit (Ministry of State For Environmental Affairs) included fungi in the category of flora on the website of the National Biodiversity Unit.

Fungi are critical to life on Earth, causing diseases and healing others. They are delicious and highly nutritious food, and a lucrative simply-set business, deteriorating remains of dead organisms and thus giving space for other living beings to survive. More attention, therefore, must be paid to their conservation, specifically with a focus on raising awareness on their importance and benefits to the human kind.

The scarcity of research on the conservation and biodiversity of fungi in Egypt was a great frustration when starting an initiative to having fungi integrated into the science curricula and extra-curricular activities, an issue which is very vital in achieving real educational reform in Egypt. It is true that more access to information is becoming available through Minter’s Cybertruffle’s Robigalia, which is also being translated and thus made available into Arabic by Gihan Samy Soliman and Abdel-Azeem, Ph.D. [Editor’s note: authors of this post], as well as the perspective 400 pages of Abdel-Azeem on the Encyclopedia of Life. Yet such cataloged information on taxonomy and origin of fungi, as valuable as they are, are not the direct answer to the dilemma. Case studies, surveys, analysis expeditions and an action plan that is supportive to the Egyptian government’s program and supplementary to it is the focus of 2011-2012 framework of the International-Curricula Educators Association, which is an Egyptian international not-for-profit NGO located in Egypt, concerned about the issue of education and biodiversity among other concerns as citizenship.

Pleurotus ostreatus (oyster mushroom) cultivated in a petri dish. Copyright Abdel-Azeem, 2011. Used with permission.

Case Study 1: Being a chairlady of an NGO concerned with the international education in Egypt, Gihan Samy Soliman has had 20 schools surveyed (400 students – online and onsite polls) to know if the students have any orientation on the topic of fungi. The results were frustrating; 86.4 percent of the surveyed students thought that fungi were micro-organisms and 0 percent correctly answered the question, “How many natural protectorate are there in Egypt?” Ironically, only 4.8 percent of students surveyed said they ever visited a protectorate in Egypt (Abdel-Azeem & Soliman 2011). We took the same survey to a sample of 40 journalists and the results were not much brighter.

Case Study 2: The chairman of Community and Environment Services Society in Saint Katherine (2009) organized a training course to more than 200 Bedouin women on cultivating and marketing mushrooms for food. However, the community did not like mushrooms as food and, in fact, the women even had an unpleasant name used whenever mushrooms naturally grew in the mountains. The production of mushrooms was very good, but mushroom were neither used as food to the local inhabitants of the mountains nor were mushrooms sold to others for extra income. Transportation expenses made the deal unacceptable to the clients; therefore, the project stopped. Local inhabitants needed more education on fungi to get a benefit out of the great project, but time was limited and the project couldn’t operate any longer.

Gihan Samy Soliman

A group of scientists and science-attentive community leaders have started establishing, for the first time in Egypt, an international Egyptian NGO organization (International Foundation for Environment Protections and Sustainability) to address the issues of biodiversity conservation in Egypt. Will all such efforts work? Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Ahmed Abdel-Azeem

Gihan Samy Soliman is Educational Consultant and Chairlady of International-Curricula Educators Association (ICEA). She can be reached at Gihansami (at) yahoo.com.

Dr. Ahmed M. Abdel-Azeem is a renowned mycologist and part of the Botany Department, Faculty of Science, University of Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt. He can be reached at zemo3000 (at) yahoo.com

References:

Abdel-Azeem, A. M. 2010. The history, fungal biodiversity, conservation, and future perspectives for mycology in Egypt . IMA Fungus 1(2): 123-142.

Abdel-Azeem, A. M. and Soliman, G. S. 2011. Biodiversity and conservation of fungi in Egypt, A survey of school students and multimedia reporters (Unpublished data).

Dahlberg, A., D. Genney, and J. Heilmann-Clausen. 2009. Developing a Comprehensive Strategy for Fungal Conservation in Europe: Current Status and Future Needs. Fungal Ecology (doi:10.1016/j.funeco.2009.10.004).

Hawksworth, D. L. 2003. Monitoring and safeguarding fungal resources worldwide: the need for an
international collaborative MycoAction Plan. Fungal Diversity 13:29-45.

International-Curricula Educators Association website (www.icea-egy.org) Accessed 13 July 2011.

Minter, D.W. 2010. A future of Fungi: the orphans of Rio. (www.fungal-conservation.org/blogs/orphans-of-rio.pdf].

National Biodiversity Unit, Ministry of State For Environmental Affairs (http://www.eeaa.gov.eg/nbd/Biodiversity/biodiversity.html) Accessed 13 July 2011.

Whittaker RH (1969) New concepts of kingdoms of organisms. Science 163: 150–160.

Image at the top of this post: First Record of Oidiopsis taurica Causing Powdery Mildew of Capparis spinosa in Egypt. Copyright Abdel-Azeem, 2009. Used with permission.

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