Forgotten Fungi – An Interview with Pam Catcheside

It is estimated that in Australia alone there are a quarter of a million species of fungi. As our understanding of the largely undiscovered and often overlooked world of fungi grows, volunteers and researchers in mycology continue to make new and interesting discoveries that have huge impacts on conservation.

One such researcher is Pam Catcheside. Now retired, Pam works in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens as an Honorary Research Associate for the State Herbarium of South Australia and is co-editing the second edition of Fungi Down Under, a field guide to Australian fungi.

Pam is a trusted expert on macro fungi, but it wasn’t until retirement that she became heavily involved in mycology.

I was a school teacher for nearly 30 years. I knew that I was going to do something in retirement, it was between lichens and fungi and fungi ‘won’.

There are only two paid mycologists in Australian herbaria, Drs Tom May and Teresa Lebel, who are both based in Melbourne.

The lack of opportunities is enough to deter interested mycologists from researching fungi, which has surely fueled the ongoing drought in mycology. However, Pam remains optimistic that the importance of fungi will be acknowledged, and appropriate awareness and funding will be given.

I met with Pam to discuss these issues and find out about her current work.

What does your research involve? 

My own research involves going out and collecting.  I probably make a couple of hundred collections a year. All are fully documented, I identify them and the collections are accessioned into the herbarium.

Pam’s collection of fungi is currently at approximately 4000.

Pam emphasises that the collection is a minute sample of South Australian fungi and the discovery of new species probably occurs more regularly than in other kingdoms:

It’s not unusual (to find new species), there are so many species of fungi.  It is estimated that there are approximately six species of fungi to each plant species. Mammals have been well researched, so everyone gets terribly excited when a new mammal has been found. I’ve got a number of new species which I’d like to write up but each one takes months or years.  It is necessary to find all relevant literature and examine other collections. It may turn out that ‘mine’ is the same as a species already described and of course I should avoid that.

Volunteers and Mycology 

An important organisation in Australian mycology is FungiMap, with which Pam is very much involved. The Fungimap website provides information on fungi and contributes to the Atlas of Living Australia. It encourages a large amount of community involvement by allowing anyone to submit photos and information of fungi they find to help expand the database.  The organisation is largely run by volunteers.

Pam states that much of the mycological work being carried out in Australia is done by people who are, in essence, volunteers. There are those in similar positions to Pam, as Honorary Research Associates, and those who work independently.

There are no formal courses in universities covering mycology. There isn’t government funding to provide training for people in mycology. And there is a lack of jobs involving fungi. 

There is, however, the Australasian Mycological Society whose mission includes the promotion of research and teaching of fungal biology, and the conservation of Australasian fungi. 

Pam herself provides some training by running workshops. In 2015 Pam delivered a workshop for clinicians and other academics, and a second workshop for field workers. In the future Pam hopes to educate more tertiary students on fungi research.

Is a career in mycology possible?

If you want to work with fungi, you can in an amateur capacity, but a job can’t be guaranteed. If you really want to pursue something go with it, but be prepared to have to be adaptable.

To improve your chances in mycology, Pam considers a research degree to be essential.

A good grounding in a subject is essential. An Honours degree is a start. It may then be a good idea to do a Ph.D. in the subject that really interests you. Then you’re in a much better position to find a stimulating job somewhere, even if outside your study area. You need to be able to work independently and that’s really what a Ph.D. teaches you. 

Pam studied botany at the Imperial College in London, which included a full term studying mycology. 

We did a lot of mycology at college. It was a wonderful education because we came away from it really able to go into any area of botany. One of my regrets is that I didn’t do a Ph.D. but in those days few women did.

Pam reveals that many PhD students have had to go overseas for work or move “somewhat sideways” in their careers.

In Australia, moving sideways includes looking into areas that are not specifically related to mycology. Pam identifies some of these areas as: 

Agriculture: 

The use of fungi in agriculture goes far beyond the edible species you find in supermarkets as Pam explains:

As well as fungal pathogens such as rusts and smuts, there are some groups of fungi that can be used to help combat these. 

Fungal endophytes live inside plant cells without causing apparent damage. Many are known to be beneficial, though some may border on being pathogenic. Some have been shown to increase plant host tolerance to drought, salinity and heat. Others confer resistance to insect pests by producing metabolites unpalatable or toxic to the pest. 

It requires funding to carry out research into the uses to which fungi could be put to increase crop yield. Encouragement of agribusinesses by governments may help in persuading those businesses to provide funding. 

Health and Medicine: 

When considering fungi the first question you’re likely to hear is “can I eat it?”

At times during the fungal season I get inundated with queries about what is it? Can I eat it? There is no safe way of telling that a ‘wild’ fungus is edible. In Australia we don’t have the hundreds, sometimes thousands of years of experience with edible and poisonous species that they have in Europe and Asia so we just don’t know about toxicity of Australian species.

The aptly named Death Cap fungus occurs in Australia, mainly under oaks and sweet chestnut. It has caused deaths in Australia.  Before you consider betting your life on your fungi identification skills, Pam says that there is a “lookalike”, a relative of the edible Paddy straw Mushroom, Volvariella volvacea.

Aside from accidental poisoning, fungi are also important in the medical field for use as a treatment.

There are many examples of fungi that are used in reducing cholesterol, in a huge array of antibiotics and as anti-cancer agents.

Mushroom 2

The Adelaide Botanic Gardens with the Bicentennial Conservatory (left) and the historic Old Tram Barn where the Herbarium is located (right). Photo by Shana Ahmed.

Mining:

The excess of heavy metals that occurs in soil and water after human intervention such as mining can be disastrous for the environment and damaging to human health. Research has shown that some fungi can remove heavy metals from soil or water and some species can even take-up these metals and transform them into a non-toxic state. 

Environment:

Fungi have many interesting capabilities such as chemical sensitivity that help both the fungus and other plants.

They can pick up ions such as phosphate and grow towards the source quite rapidly and take up those nutrients. Some produce enzymes that can break down rock. Because of its fungal partners, the plant gets nutrients that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Fungi also stabilize the soil, which is particularly important after fire. They provide food and habitat for invertebrates and niches for small plants.

After a fire the soil pH is often up to pH 10, very alkaline, but the fungi can reduce the pH down to about 7, better for plant growth.

Pam speaks passionately about the huge importance fungi have in conservation. She points out that as there is so much undiscovered about fungi, the damage being done to the long-term health of our ecosystems is mostly unknown. 

Without fungi you’re not going to have a healthy soil, without fungi you’re not going to have trees getting any taller than about 2 metres and without the recycling you’re not going to have very much happening because the nutrients are not available

Almost all species of truffles are symbiotic with plants. In turn they are dependent on animals such as marsupials that come along and dig up the fungi, eat them, deposit their dung with the spores within it and so all three partners benefit. This is an example of why habitat clearance can be so devastating: these often poorly understood interrelationships may be badly or irreversibly affected. 

It is clear that the impacts fungi have on the environment and conservation is huge, and that researchers should acknowledge this. The more people who are aware of how crucial fungi are, the more these organisms will be brought to the forefront of conservation.

When one person is working in an under-researched area such as mycology, that person is a bit like the proverbial stone thrown into the water. They are sending out ripples, it’s up to other people to take up mycology.

Careers Advice, Ecologist Jobs, Interviews, Senior Level

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