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Headlines Published on 03 August 2007

Title Mushrooms may hold magic solution to environmental woes, European researchers say

European experts are leading a global effort to decode the genetic sequence of the common Agaricus bisporus, or button mushroom. The short, white mushroom that dots European fields and features in European meals may possess a range of beneficial qualities capable of remedying many of our environmental woes, including reducing carbon levels and removing heavy metals from the soil. This worldwide project is coordinated by the University of Warwick (UK), and includes several partners from across Europe and North America, the two continents where the mushroom is most common.

The common mushroom holds extraordinary promise. © Erin Silversmith
The common mushroom holds extraordinary promise.
© Erin Silversmith
The members of the Agaricus mushroom family are renowned for being efficient “secondary decomposers” of plant material, such as leaves and other natural by-products too durable to be decomposed by other fungi and bacteria. Exactly how they do this is still a mystery, so researchers are sequencing its genome in hopes of uncovering the answer. Researchers posit that a full understanding of the process may hold clues to novel ways of producing biofuels.

Mushrooms occupy an important position in the Earth’s carbon cycle, and were therefore an obvious choice for researchers in deciding where to look for a better understanding of the natural factors behind the process. Anywhere between 1 and 2 gigatonnes of carbon are captured in pools in the temperate and boreal regions of the planet, representing up to 30% of annual fossil fuel and industrial emissions worldwide. Gaining insight into the role played by mushrooms in the carbon cycle of such ecosystems could prove invaluable to global carbon management.

In addition to their influence on carbon in forests, button mushrooms also have the added ability to hyper-accumulate toxic metals in soils much more rapidly than other fungi. If scientists can pinpoint how they accomplish this, they could be better utilised for the bioremediation of contaminated soils.

A better understanding of the Agaricus species for environmental purposes also has the unintended effect of benefiting the consumer market. Through a more developed understanding of the mushroom, growers can cultivate them to favour quality traits such as increased disease resistance.

For the project, the University of Warwick is coordinating the provision of genetic material analysis of the sequence data, and is acting as curator of the mushroom genome. Other partners include the Joint Genome Institute USA, University of Bristol (UK), Institut für Forstbotanik der Universität Göttingen (DE), Public University of Navarre (ES), Penn State University (US), Plant Research International Wageningen (NL) and Universiteit Utrecht (NL). Project participants expect to have 90% of the mushroom’s genome completed by 2010.

More information:

  • Environmental research on Europa
  • Research at the University of Warwick

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