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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Getting to know the fungus among us

The Fungal World.
[Credit: Siiri Jüris and Leho Tedersoo]

Researchers studied almost 15,000 soil samples from 365 different sites around the world to paint the most vivid picture of Earth's fungi yet. It's important to understand how fungi are distributed around the world--and how it responds to human activities--because this group of organisms plays a serious role in human health, they say.

Most genetic studies to date have focused on creatures living above ground. But Leho Tedersoo and colleagues turned their attention to the dirt, where fungus dwells. By sequencing the genes of fungi in their soil samples, the researchers were able to identify some global patterns of fungus distribution along with many factors that appear to drive new species of fungus around the world.

Their findings suggest that the evolution of fungus has not been as dependent on plant evolution as researchers have thought. They say that strongest driver of fungus diversity today is annual rainfall, along with the pH of the soil and the amount of calcium in it.

Like plants and animals, most fungi appear to be concentrated around Earth's equator, they say. However, Tedersoo and the other researchers did find some major fungal groups that defy this pattern. Taken together, their results shed more light on fungus around the world--but they also highlight how much scientists still have to learn about these organisms and their impacts on human health.