A team of UC Berkeley researchers made the first comprehensive collection of fungi on the Polynesian island of Mo’orea in a study published March 30.
Mo’orea offers a level of biodiversity that researchers have taken a particular interest in, according to campus postdoctoral researcher Todd Osmundson, who authored the study. He added the island’s isolation, relatively young age and size have made it a case study that yields important insights into how species travel and diversify. Relatively little is known about fungi despite their critical role in ecosystems, Osmundson said.
“Most of the fungi that we think exist on the planet have never been formally described before,” Osmundson said. “It’s really a frontier in terms of biological discovery.”
According to campus microbial biology professor Steven Lindow, fungi are small and highly mobile organisms that produce spores that fly around and spread. The species of fungi found on Mo’orea may help researchers understand just how far these spores are able to travel.
While fungi spores were likely able to travel from continents such as Australia, some were introduced via humans, offering an explanation as to how the island is home to fungi native to California, Lindow noted.
“The real question is ‘where did the colonists of Mo’orea come from?’ ” Lindow said. “It had been studied in the case of plants and animals, but it hadn’t really been looked at in terms of fungi.”
While on the island, the researchers collected more than 200 different fungi species and increased the number of fungal DNA species in an international database by about 48 species, according to Osmundson.
The team spent a total of five months on Mo’orea, where the harsh topography and climate of the island presented challenges for their sample collections, Osmundson said. He added jagged peaks and steep slopes, in addition to heavy rainfall, make some areas of the island particularly difficult to access.
“There are places that are accessible but with a lot of trouble,” Osmundson said. “There are hiking groups that have installed ropes on some of the peaks where you can hike up with the aid of a rope that you hang onto.”
The team’s expansive collection of fungi prompted further questions about how these species ended up on a relatively young volcanic island that had never touched another piece of land before, added Osmundson.
When it comes to fungi biodiversity, Mo’orea is a “treasure trove,” according to Osmundson, who was quoting campus professor and principal investigator of the project Matteo Garbelotto.
“There does seem to be quite a bit of evidence that a lot of things that we’re finding on the island haven’t ever been described before,” Osmundson said.