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Are fungi the most important organisms on the planet?

15 November 2008

What are the world’s most invaluable species? This is the topic of the 2008 Earthwatch debate at the Royal Geographical Society where Professor Lynne Boddy will be arguing that fungi are truly irreplaceable.

A leading expert in her field, Professor Boddy, of the School of Biosciences, will be arguing the case for fungi against four other species - bats, bees, plankton and primates. Members of the audience will decide which species we really would be unable to survive without.

Fungi are the main garbage disposal agents and nutrient recyclers of the natural world and are important in producing human food. Penicillin is also produced by a fungus, as are many of the ‘wonder drugs’ of the twenty-first century including medicines for controlling cholesterol and preventing transplant tissue rejection.

Professor Boddy said: "In Britain, fungi seem to have a bad reputation. In fact, very few fungi cause a nuisance. Moreover, what most people do not realise is that without fungi humans could not, and would not, exist.

"Going back to the very beginning, plants first colonized land about 600 to 800 million years ago, but only with the aid of mutualist fungi. Nowadays, over 90% of plants obtain their nutrients and water from soil through fungi."

Professor Boddy has selected Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric, when it comes to the vote for which of the five species is most crucial to the planet. This particular fungus recycles dead organic matter, produces an insecticide against flies and powerful chemicals that may turn out to yield novel pharmaceuticals, and provides trees with water, nutrients and protection from pathogens.

The debate takes place at the Royal Geographical Society in London on 20 November 2008. The case for the other species will be debated by Dr Kate Jones, the Zoological Society of London, Dr George McGavin, Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Professor David Thomas, University of Bangor, and Ian Redmond OBE, Chairman of the Ape Alliance. Further details are available from Earthwatch.

Earthwatch is an international environmental charity dedicated to engaging people in scientific field research and education to inspire the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment.