Campus researchers discover mushroom species on UC Berkeley grounds

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A new species of mushroom was discovered on UC Berkeley grounds by two campus researchers.

Else Vellinga, a campus researcher, and Nhu Nguyen, a UC Berkeley doctorate who is now a postdoctoral associate at University of Minnesota, found the new species — Helvella dryophila — on Observatory Hill near the C.V. Starr East Asian Library two years ago. In 2013, the researchers published a paper detailing this species and another species, Helvella vespertina.

The researchers found the species while searching for other mushrooms that grow near the root systems of certain trees. Vellinga and Nguyen found that the Helvella dryophila species grows near the root systems of oak trees.

Through DNA analysis, the researchers discovered that the species found on campus is genetically different from the Swedish variety for which it had originally been mistaken. While physically similar, the two are genetically different.

According to Nguyen, the species was mistaken for the European species because all researchers had to rely on was an outdated catalog without DNA information or illustrations.

“We go out and collect things and compare them. These look very much like the ones in Europe, but nowadays we don’t just rely on what they look like, we rely on their DNA,” Vellinga said.

According to the researchers, the Observatory Hill mushroom collection will be the type locality for the species, meaning that the specimens found on campus will serve as the representative example for other specimens to be compared to. The location was chosen because the new species grows in the same location every year.

The new species of mushroom contains a compound similar to rocket fuel, according to the researchers, and could be edible if the compound was cooked out and evaporated. Neither researcher tasted the mushroom. According to Vellinga, her main purpose for collecting mushrooms is for science, not for food.

“There are around 150 species (of mushrooms) on campus,” Vellinga said. “It shows that you can find new species right here. There is always attention on expeditions to exotic places … but there are mushrooms species to be described right here in California, right here on campus.”

According to the researchers, the new discovery shows the importance of creating a catalog of North American mushrooms because research methods have advanced from when the first catalog was compiled more than a century ago. The outdated catalog does not contain pictures or DNA sequences of the mushrooms.

Compiling new information on mushroom species is also important to document the diversity of an environment experiencing extinction, according to Nguyen.

The work done by Vellinga and Nguyen is part of the North American Mycoflora Project, which aims to collect information on mushrooms in a central database.

“I feel that taxonomy is a service to all other branches of biology,” Vellinga said. “If you don’t know what you have you can’t do anything with that information.”

Contact Sierra Stalcup at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @SierraStalcup.