If you are looking for a mushroom expert, look no further than Roo Vandegrift.
“Think of all the diversity you find in animals, everything from little shrimp to people, you find that same kind of diversity in fungi,” Vandegrift, a research assistant professor of fungal ecology at the University of Oregon, said. “Everything from the typical cap and gill mushroom to microscopic organisms that do all kinds of wild things.”
According to Vandegrift, 3.2 million fungi are estimated to exist on Earth, but only about 120,000 species have been documented. New discoveries from his trip to the Andean cloud forest — a high elevation rainforest — in Ecuador could add to that list of fungi.
“There could be dozens of new species sitting here on [this laboratory] benchtop right now,” Vandegrift said, “because tropical fungal diversity is so poorly described at the moment.”
Vandegrift and his research partner, Danny Newman, a freelance mycologist (fungi specialist) and photographer, collected 350 specimens of fungi from the nature reserve, Reserva Los Cedros. Now that their crowdfunding efforts are nearly complete, the two are preparing for the next stage of their project: sequencing the “barcode” gene of each specimen.
The barcode gene, Vandegrift explains, codes for the production of ribosomes in cells. Ribosomes are responsible for transcribing DNA into RNA, a process that is essential for life at every level. In Vandegrift and Newman’s case, they used a piece of the ribosome gene known as the “internal transcribed spacer.”
“As evolution happens and species split, the sequence for that particular gene gets more and more different,” Vandegrift said. “The more different it is, the more divergent the organism.”
Getting their samples was a journey itself, though. To reach Reserva Los Cedros, Vandegrift flew to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. He then boarded a 6 a.m. bus that whisked him deep into the Andean mountains. Reaching a small village in the afternoon, they hired a pickup truck driver, bundled all their research gear into the bed of the truck, and trekked further into the rainforest.
“You drive to where the road literally ends,” Vandegrift said, “where you meet a mule train that’s come down from the mountain. You load all your stuff up onto mules and you hike or ride mules up into the mountains for three hours into this tractless wilderness before you finally get to Los Cedros.”
The variety of species found at Los Cedros made it an ideal location for Vandegrift to collect samples. Its close proximity to the equator and isolation from humanity allow the site to sustain a rich variety of species not seen in other parts of the world. The reserve is known to contain numerous species of birds, mammals, plants and of course, fungi.
Recently, Ecuador has opened more of the country to mining companies for resource extraction. As of June 2016, 80 percent of Los Cedros was signed over to a Canadian mining company, Cornerstone, but Vandegrift said that he hopes their work can highlight why the region should be preserved.
“There are more than 100 documented red-list endangered species that occur at Reserva Los Cedros,” Vandegrift said. “The better documented the diversity at a conservation location like this, the less likely it is that the conservation status will be revoked in favor of resource extraction.”
Read more about the pair’s work in the recent profile in Colossal: www.thisiscolossal.com/2018/01/ecuadorian-fungi/
Check out Newman’s photos from the trip at citizen science website Mushroom Observer: http://mushroomobserver.org/observer/observation_search?page=11&pattern=%22los+cedros%22
View some of Newman’s photos below:
The article originally misstated that Newman’s photos were from a photo archive. It has been updated to reflect the correct location of the photos online, a citizen science website called Mushroom Observer.