World’s plants and fungi a frontier of discovery, if we can protect them: Report

  • The “State of the World’s Plants and Fungi 2020” report, released this week, was born of the collaborative effort of 200 scientists from 42 different countries and delves into a global assessment of plants and fungi as food, fuel, medicine, tools for urban resilience, and more.
  • In 2019 alone, 1,942 plants and 1,886 fungi were newly described by scientists, some closely related to known medicinal species and potentially new sources of medicine.
  • More than 7,000 edible plants hold potential as future crops, according to the report, meeting the criteria of being nutritious, robust and historically used as food.
  • Nearly 40{554322552816a46baa129cc1ab31b2aae22be5e23f407658ace83a643d80b0e9} of plant species are estimated to be threatened with extinction.

Outer space, the ocean depths and quantum physics are areas ripe for discovery, the underexplored frontiers of science. But another frontier may be hidden in plain sight, right under your feet or out your window, in the kingdoms of plants and fungi.

In 2019 alone, 1,942 plants and 1,886 fungi were newly described by scientists. Some of these plants are in the family of garlic and onions, some new wild types of cassava, and some closely related to known medicinal species and potentially new sources of medicine.

However, nearly 40{554322552816a46baa129cc1ab31b2aae22be5e23f407658ace83a643d80b0e9} of global plant species are estimated to be threatened with extinction.

The last known remaining Abutilon pitcairnense was destroyed by a landslide on Pitcairn Island in the southern Pacific Ocean. It is now considered extinct. Photo by Marcella Corcoran.

The “State of the World’s Plants and Fungi 2020” report, released this week by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBG Kew), delves into a global assessment of plants and fungi as food, fuel, medicine, tools for urban resilience and stores of genetic diversity; the commercialization of plants; and whether conservation policies help or hinder scientific research. Also covered are states of both extinction and discovery.

The report was born of the collaborative effort of 200 scientists from 42 different countries. Each chapter is based on new studies published in the journal New Phytologist and aims to present these findings in a reader-friendly manner.

“It’s an unprecedented collection of knowledge,” Phil Stevenson, RBG Kew scientist and lead author of the ecosystem services chapter of the report, told Mongabay. “And hopefully it will help individuals and policymakers understand how to change and how to conserve.”

Gladiolus mariae newly described by science in 2019, blooms on Banga Guemey table mountain in the Kounounkan Massif in Guinea. Credit RBG Kew.
Gladiolus mariae, newly described by science in 2019, blooms on Banga Guemey table mountain in the Kounounkan Massif in Guinea. Credit RBG Kew.

Nearly 4,000 species of plants and fungi were named by scientists in 2019, and, the report says, the Kingdom of Fungi is vastly underexplored.

“People often think that every species has been located and classified but it’s not the case. There are still vast numbers of species on this planet that we know nothing about and don’t even have names for,” Martin Cheek, senior research leader on the Africa and Madagascar team at RBG Kew, wrote in the report.

“We know somewhere in the region 150,000 species of fungi, but there are predicted to be somewhere near between 2 to 4 million species. So, 90{554322552816a46baa129cc1ab31b2aae22be5e23f407658ace83a643d80b0e9} of fungi are still to be described,” Stevenson said.

“And if you think about all the important medicines that have come from fungi,” he added, ” just thinking penicillin, for example, just imagine the wonders and amazing things that we still have yet to discover.”

Cordyceps jakajanicola is a newly named fungal parasite of cicadas. Credit Martin Cheek
The newly named Cordyceps jakajanicola is a fungal parasite of cicadas. Some cordyceps are used medicinally. Credit Martin Cheek

More than 7,000 edible plants hold potential as future crops, according to the report, meeting the criteria of being nutritious, robust and historically used as food. As a whole, humanity vastly underutilizes the diversity of plants and fungi available as food, with 90{554322552816a46baa129cc1ab31b2aae22be5e23f407658ace83a643d80b0e9} of humanity’s caloric food intake reliant on three crops: rice, maize and wheat.

“The thousands of underutilised and neglected plant species, known also as orphan crops, are the lifeline to millions of people on Earth tormented by unprecedented climate change, pervasive food and nutrition insecurity and economic disempowerment,” Stefano Padulosi, former senior scientist at the Alliance of Biodiversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, wrote in the report.

“Harnessing this basket of untapped resources for making food and production systems more diverse and resilient to change,” Padulosi adds, “should be our moral duty to current and future generations.”

Fonio (digitaria exilis) is a grass species that grows wild in West African savannas. Used locally as to make porridges, drinks and couscous, this fast growing, drought tolerant, and nut plant could be a potential global food source. Image courtesy of RBG Kew.
Fonio (digitaria exilis) is a grass species that grows wild in West African savannas. Used locally to make porridges, drinks and couscous, this fast-growing, drought-tolerant, nutritious plant could be a potential global food source. Image courtesy of RBG Kew.

The chapter on urban resiliency highlights the benefits of what, to many, seem to be little more than decorations: the trees and plants in the city. “When people think of nature, they don’t really think of cities,” Stevenson said. But trees in cities clean the air, prevent floods, reduce the impact of rain, provide shade and habitat, store carbon, and can be temperature controls. They provide ecosystem services both in the city and in the forest.

“There is a lot of wildlife in cities,” Stevenson said. “And it’s where most people live … where people are most likely to have a positive relationship with nature … those positive relationships are critical because they have health benefits to people.”

Urban trees provide ecosystem services and potential health benefits in places where most people live, cities. Image courtesy of RBG Kew via Shutterstock.
Urban trees provide ecosystem services and potential health benefits in places where most people live, cities. Image courtesy of RBG Kew.

The researchers also explored the commercialization of plants and barriers to nature-inspired innovation, including issues around patenting genetic information and considering the contributions of local, traditional and Indigenous knowledge of plant use.

“I think it is a real shame that more plant and fungus derived materials aren’t subject to appropriate patents, because it would increase the economic value of biodiversity,” Monique Simmonds, deputy director of science at RBG Kew wrote. “More people would realise the potential plants and fungi have, because many of those patents would have resulted in some form of commercialisation. And provided appropriate systems were in place, that would result in money going back to the place where the biodiversity came from.”

St Helena Olive tree is extinct as of 2003. Photo by Rebecca Cairns-Wicks.
St Helena Olive tree is extinct as of 2003. Photo by Rebecca Cairns-Wicks.

Though the riches of the plant and fungal world are undeniable, humanity is in a race against time to find, name and conserve these treasures before they are lost. Some are proponents of a “rapid triage” approach, using artificial intelligence to identify priority conservation hotspots.

And the emphasis is on the word rapid, as nearly 40{554322552816a46baa129cc1ab31b2aae22be5e23f407658ace83a643d80b0e9} of plant species are estimated to be threatened with extinction and extinction pressures such as climate change and habitat loss are accelerating. This new percentage estimate is much higher than 2016 estimates, due in part to a new approach that corrects biases in data that previously meant certain areas of the world, as well as certain plant groups, may have been under- or over accounted for.

Among those at risk for extinction are 723 medicinal plants, though the actual number of threatened plants that have medicinal value is likely much higher. Out of 25,791 documented medicinal plants, only 5,4011 plant and six fungal species have been assessed for their conservation status.

Some examples include a plant used traditionally for circulatory disorders, Brugmansia sanguinea, which is now listed as extinct in the wild by the IUCN. Other at-risk species mentioned are Nepenthes khasiana, traditionally used for skin diseases, and the black pepper bark tree (Warburgia salutaris), a traditional remedy for colds and coughs.

One fungal species known to have strong antimicrobial properties, the parasitic, wood-inhabiting eburiko (Fomitopsis officinalis), has already been pushed to the edge of extinction.

The endangered fungi Fomitopsis officinalis is known to have strong antimicrobial properties. Photo by Steph Jarvis via WikiMedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
The endangered fungi, Fomitopsis officinalis, is known to have strong antimicrobial properties. Photo by Steph Jarvis via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

When we lose these organisms, we lose valuable medicines, foods and ecosystem services. But it’s important to remember that nature has intrinsic value on its own, unrelated to humans, said Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at Kew.

“We share this planet with millions of other species, many of which existed long before us. Despite the fact that an exploitative view of nature has deep roots in our society, most people today would agree that we have no moral right to obliterate a species — even if it has no immediate benefit to us,” Antonelli wrote in the introduction to the report.

“Ultimately, the protection of biodiversity needs to embrace our ethical duty of care for this planet as well as our own needs.”

Citation:

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. (2020). State of the world’s plants and fungi 2020. doi:10.34885/172

Banner image: Mycena haematopus (Burgundydrop Bonnet) by Lukas Large via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough

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Biodiversity, Biofuels, Climate Change, Climate Change And Extinction, Conservation, Critically Endangered Species, Endangered Species, Extinction, Extinction Debt, Food, food security, Forests, Fungi, Green, Mass Extinction, Medicinal Plants, New Discovery, Plants, Research, Species Discovery

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