north american mycoflora project

The long-term goal of this project is to produce a modern, comprehensive mycoflora of macrofungi for North America. This would be a resource that contains monographic treatments of all the macrofungi. It would provide online keys and downloadable applications, up to date distribution maps, links to macroscopic and microscopic images, and links to nucleotide sequences and phylogenetic trees. We are a long way from this goal and will need the help of everyone interested in this project to get there.

The recent case for a North American Mycoflora has been made in articles by Matheny and Vellinga 2009, and Bruns 2011 in the Inoculum, and the call was repeated by Bruns and Beug 2012 in Mcllvanea. However, the idea of a mycoflora is hardly a new one (see Petersen's short historical perspective here). Nevertheless we have never really made a serious attempt at producing a Mycoflora in North America. In fact we have never had even a regional mycoflora for any part of the continent. However, we think that the combination of web-based tools, trained citizen scientists, and DNA sequence analysis open up the possibilities for producing the first North American Mycoflora for Macrofungi within our life times.  

You may wonder how a mycoflora would be different from the field guides and foray lists already available. Vouchered herbarium specimens is a big part of the answer. In any monographic treatment species concepts are anchored to physical specimens. So that when one gives a species description, it is followed by a list of specimens that were examined to form the basis of that description. This allows other researchers to go back to the specimens and check or amend the descriptions as needed; this is very important because species concepts are often modified through time as new data accumulate. If specimens are available, one can reexamine them and update distribution maps and other data associated with a species. If they are not available, there is no way to accurately connect new taxonomic concepts to preexisting data.

Metadata associated with the specimens is equally important. If we know where, when and with what a particular specimen was found, it makes the specimen much more valuable. Ideally each specimen would be connected to a date, and exact location, a habitat that occurred at that location when it was collected, and notes about any critical taxonomic characters that are not likely to preserved in the dried specimen (e.g. taste, smell, color, bruising, etc.). Color images need to be a major part of this effort because dried herbarium specimens generally lose their color and shape. All of these images do not need not be great art, but they do need to document the critical features of the specimen that will not be preserved, and they need to be directly associated with the specimen. That is to say one or a few images for species is not what we are after here, we want one or more images for each vouchered specimen. That way the range of variation within a species is documented, and the specimens themselves become more valuable because one can see what each one looked like when it was fresh.

Specimens for this work will come from two basic sources: 1) existing collections housed in herbaria, and 2) new collections that will need to be deposited in herbaria. Currently the data associated with existing collections are hard to access, because the information is not easily searched or compiled in most herbaria. However, the recently funded NSF ADBC proposal will digitize data associated with over 1.3 million macrofungal collections from 35 US fungal herbaria and make them available in searchable format together with images. Types and in some cases, old literature will also be digitized. This project can provide the basic skeleton of a North American mycoflora. New collections will also be a necessary part of the work, because most areas of the continent are currently not well represented by previous collections. Ongoing projects that survey the fungi in particular regions, parks, or states and that involve vouchered specimens and sequence will be important for the Mycoflora effort. We provide a list of ones we know about here. 

DNA sequences have revolutionized fungal taxonomy and systematics (see 2006 Deep Hypha issue of Mycologia, 98(6)), and sequences are now becoming a standard way to compare and distinguish species. Ideally sequence-based species recognition would be based on a multi-locus approach (Taylor et al 2006), but many species can be recognized by sequence differences in the Internal Transcribed Spacer Region, or ITS as it is commonly known, and this locus has recently been designated the barcoding locus for fungi (Schoch et al 2012). ITS sequences have also revolutionize fungal ecology in that they have allowed us to identify fungi when they are not producing mushrooms or other fruiting structures (Peay et al 2008), but the accuracy of this approach is dependent on having sequence databases that are themselves accurate. The mycoflora effort can help here because the accuracy of the identification can be checked by examining the vouchered collections morphologically or by determining additionally sequences from the vouchered material. In addition ITS sequences can help us verify the accuracy of our identifications and allow us to compare collections more confidently from different locations on the continent. For these reasons we feel strongly that a modern mycoflora should be based on vouched specimens from which one or more DNA sequences have been determined. The need for vouchered specimens and sequences are reflected in our motto: "without a sequenced specimen, it’s a rumor."

Interested in helping? Sign up on our listserve and we will keep you posted.

For more information about this project, contact:
Tom Bruns (email), Else Vellinga (email), or David Rust (email).

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This is a joint project of the MSA and NAMA.