Mycology: The Art and Science of Mushrooms

Mycology: The Art and Science of Mushrooms

Fungi are an integral part of our world as they play an important role in the way our environment functions. There is so much yet to uncover about these extraordinary organisms.

That’s where mycologists come in. More specifically, that’s what mycology is for. 

So what is mycology? Well, read on to find out!

What Is Mycology 

To put it simply, mycology is the field of study that involves everything related to fungi, including:

  • Genetic & biochemical properties
  • Taxonomy
  • Human use

A specialist in this field is known as a mycologist. 

Here are four fun facts about mycology:

  1. The word mycology comes from the Ancient Greek word ‘mukēs’ and the suffix ‘-logia,’ which combine to form ‘fungus study.’
  2. M.J. Berkeley was the first person to use the terms mycology and mycologist in 1836.
  3. Mycology is intricately connected to phytopathology (the study of plant diseases) because most plant diseases are fungi.
  4. Field meetings to find interesting fungi species are known as ‘forays’ as a reference to the first such meeting entitled ‘A foray among the funguses.’

History and Origins

According to plaque found on ancient human teeth from around 12,000 to 18,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers in Europe used to use mushrooms as a source of food. Even prehistoric humans found them tasty.

It wasn’t until the works of Euripides (480-406 BC) that mushrooms were first mentioned in written texts. Not long after that, Theophrastos of Eersos (371-288 BC) was the first to attempt to systematically classify plants, including mushrooms. 

Mycology, as a field of study, first started with the publication of Nova Plantarum genera by Pier Antonio Micheli. This book was part of the foundation for modern-day fungi classification. 

The first organized mycological communities were the British Mycological Society (1869) and the Mycological Society of America (1932). The purpose of these groups was to advance and promote the study of fungi.

Fungi: Not a Plant

Did you know that fungi were considered plants for the longest time?

It was only in the 1960s that fungi gained their own unique classification group. Before that, fungi were grouped with plants. As such, the field of mycology was a branch of the broad umbrella of botany. 

In 1969, Robert Whittaker proposed that fungi should have their own kingdom. This decision came from the fact that fungi do not generate their food through photosynthesis like plants do. Because of this, fungi are more similar to animals in that they need to obtain food from their environment. 

Since its creation, the Fungi Kingdom has been further refined to its present-day iteration. All species in this group are known as ‘true fungi.’

Pioneer Mycologists

Throughout the history of mycology, there have been certain individuals who have made significant advancements in the field. Here are some of the most important individuals:

Christian Hendrik Persoon

Christian Hendrik Persoon (1761-1836) was a German mycologist who is usually credited as the founding father of fungi classification. He wrote the Synopsis Methodica Fungorum, which remains a starting point for the naming of certain fungi species today.

Elias Magnus Fries

Elias Magnus Fries (1794-1878) was a Swedish mycologist who also made significant strides in fungi classification. He wrote the groundbreaking three-volume Systema Mycologicum (1821-1832) that a lot of modern-day fungi naming methods are based on.

Heinrich Anton de Bary

Heinrich Anton de Bary (1831-1888) was a German mycologist who extensively studied plant diseases, specifically pathogenic fungi. 

In the past, people believed that fungi spontaneously appeared on affected plants. De Bary proved this theory wrong by researching the life histories of various fungi species. 

Elizabeth Eaton Morse

Elizabeth Eaton Morse (1864-1955) was an American mycologist who collected and named various species of fungi. She organized the California Mycological Society to give people the opportunity to collect and trade fungi specimens. 

The bulk of her fungi collection is now split between the University Herbarium at the University of California in Berkeley, and the U.S. National Fungus Collections in Beltsville, Maryland.

Lewis David von Schweinitz

Lewis David von Schweinitz (1780-1834) was a German-American mycologist, who is sometimes considered the “Father of North American Mycology.” 

While working as an administrator of church estates, he conducted mycological research at these locations. The results of this work led to the publication of Synopsis Fungorum Carolinæ Superioris in 1822. This book listed 1,373 species of fungi, naming and describing 320 new species. 

Pier Andrea Saccardo

Pier Andrea Saccardo (1845-1920) was an Italian mycologist who was most well known for his Sylloge. This work included a comprehensive list of the names that were used for each mushroom species at the time.

He developed a system to classify fungi that didn’t fit the usual classification method based on spore colour and form. This method was commonly used before the invention of DNA analysis.

Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) was an English writer and illustrator who is best known for her children’s book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. However, she also studied and illustrated fungi that she observed in the natural world around her. These watercolour paintings of fungi gained her recognition from others in the field of mycology.

Why Is Mycology Important?

So now you know a bit about the field of mycology. But why is it so important to study fungi in the first place? 

To start with, fungi are a vital part of life on this planet. The two main reasons for their importance are:

  1. Beneficial & Harmful Relationships – Fungi have intricate symbiotic relationships with many other life forms, including plants, insects, and lichens.
  2. Decomposition – They are capable of breaking down complex biomolecules that other organisms can’t.

Besides their role in Earth’s overall ecosystem, fungi are also economically and socially important.

Harmful effects of fungi can include causing diseases in humans, farm animals, and crops. Infected animals and plants could result in famine if the spread is severe enough.

The more we know about fungi, the better we can harness their power for good. For example, they can be used to control plant diseases caused by other pathogens. Research into the Trichoderma species has shown that it is a good natural alternative for effective crop disease management. 

An application of fungi that affects us more directly is their role in the invention of certain antibiotics. Next time your doctor prescribes you an antibiotic for an infection, you can thank your fungi friends for that.

Another common use of fungi is for their health benefits. Functional mushrooms (aka medicinal mushrooms) provide you with different benefits depending on which one you consume. Examples include Lion’s Mane for brain power and Reishi for sleep quality. 

Mycology: A Field of Fungi

Mycology is a broad field of study. Within this umbrella, there are various specializations, including:

  • Edible Fungi – Criteria to be an edible fungi include a lack of poisonous effects on humans and a desirable taste and aroma
  • Mycorrhizae – The symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants as well as how this relationship affects the environment
  • Medical Mycology – Anything related to fungi’s use in medicine, such as antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals 
  • Pathogenic Fungi – Plant infections caused by fungi and prevention of these infections
  • Entheogenic Mushrooms – Magic mushrooms and their effects on humans

Within mycology, there are also a wide variety of professional groups:

  • British Mycological Society
  • Mycological Society of America
  • North American Mycological Association 
  • International Mycological Association 
  • EUROFUNG

Mycology: The Underdog

Did you know that mycology is a massively understudied field? 

To give you some perspective, there are currently around 350,000 named species of flowering plants. In comparison, there are only 70,000 named fungal species. 

Still not convinced?

What if I told you that there are an estimated 1.5 million species of fungi in the world? That means we’ve only scratched the surface of the Fungi Kingdom. And yet, progress is slow.

Why is that the case?

First, fungi are quite difficult to study. Unlike plants, most fungi can’t be grown in a lab. That means that researchers have to venture into the world to find their specimens. This results in various contributing factors that can make the process difficult.

The easiest way to spot a fungus is to find its mushrooms. However, these mushrooms are often only visible for a short period during their growth season. Without them, it is incredibly difficult to find the accompanying mycelia. 

Second, there are few educational courses or programs that specialize in mycology. This shortage could be explained by mycology’s previous classification as part of botany. When botany departments started shrinking over the years, the mycology programs were often left without support. 

Third, the growing public interest and expanding community of mushroom foragers around the world has not resulted in an increase in the number of people studying fungi. In fact, funding for mycology in universities has been decreasing over the years. This could be due to anything from a lack of coordination, inadequate cooperation with peers, and unwillingness to specialize within the field.

How To Become A Mycologist

So now that you know what mycology is, you may be interested in how someone becomes a mycologist.

The most important thing you need is a passion or interest in three different subjects: fungi, plant sciences, and bioinformatics. All three of these subjects will be constant companions on your road to becoming a mycologist. 

Got that covered? Great, we can move on to the certifications you need.

To start with, most mycologists obtain a Bachelor of Science. For this degree, you should specialize in botany, microbiology, bioscience or mycology. 

Unfortunately, degrees with a pure mycology focus are rare. However, many of the other specializations listed have mycology courses you can take.

Your studies don’t stop there. 

Next up, you need a master’s degree in mycology. You can tailor your studies and coursework based on your interests and career goals. 

For those that only want to work as independent consultants, you can stop here. 

However, if you want to work as a researcher and professor at a university, then you need a Ph.D. in Mycology. By obtaining the highest-level degree, you prove that you have a clear understanding of mycology and any topics related to it.

Mycologist Career Opportunities

Mycologists can work in a wide variety of fields. As long as the industry sector values the skills and knowledge of a mycologist, there is career potential there.

Examples of employers you could work for as a mycologist include: 

  • Agricultural companies
  • Pharmaceutical companies
  • Pharmacology laboratories
  • Colleges & universities
  • Research laboratories
  • Governments
  • Botanical gardens
  • Scientific journals

Conclusion

Mycology is a fascinating field filled with fungi. Maybe one day you’ll make your mark on it through your own research. Or you could spread the word about fungi’s importance in your day-to-day life. Either way, make sure to have fun(gi)!