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NHMU Mycologists Publish Groundbreaking Mushroom Research (porcinis)

The Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU)’s Dentinger Lab has published the results of a first-of-its-kind genetic survey of Boletus edulis – commonly known as porcini – across the Northern Hemisphere. Dr. Bryn Dentinger, Curator of Mycology at NHMU and Associate Professor of biology at the University of Utah, and Keaton Tremble, University of Utah School of Biological Sciences Ph.D. candidate, conducted the largest-ever genetic survey for any single non-model organism, and their findings are seminal in the field of fungal biology.   

In short, Dentinger and Tremble have found that the genetics of porcini mushrooms evolve based on the local environmental conditions in which they are found.

“Typically, fungi are compared and classified based on whether they’re from one small geographic area or another, without much attention paid to incremental changes that occur between them,” said Dentinger. “Our study is important because it goes beyond overly simplistic sampling methods used in the past.”  

Dentinger and Tremble collected a massive set of Boletus edulis specimens and evaluated the genetic code of their samples from across the globe, including Central America, Europe, and Utah. What they learned is that porcini demonstrate remarkable species diversity based on several factors beyond geographic location. 

“This study shows that you don’t need isolation for genetic divergence,” Tremble says. “The force of ecological adaptation is so strong in Boletus edulis that even though you can disperse spores basically anywhere, there is strong selection to adapt to specific environments.”

When Dentinger and Tremble weren’t out scavenging for porcini themselves – either in the nearby Uinta Mountains or abroad in foreign locations like Antigua, Guatemala – they relied on NHMU’s in-house fungus collection, as well as previous collections at many other institutions. After exhausting those data, Dentinger and Tremble collaborated with fungus collectors from all over the globe. Throughout the study, more than 160 different samples from across the Northern Hemisphere were examined at the Dentinger Lab at NHMU.

“Finding fungi is a treasure hunt; you have to rely on opportunistic encounters in nature to collect a living sample,” Dentinger says, explaining the importance of reaching out for assistance from around the globe. “This is fundamentally different from working with plants, which are there in every season, and animals, which you can bait.” 

Understanding how species form is one of the most fundamental questions in biology and Dentinger and Tremble’s study challenges commonly held assumptions about the role of physical isolation in how species form that are based almost exclusively on plants and animals. Their study demonstrates that a more inclusive approach is needed to obtain a complete view of nature. 

Dentinger and Tremble’s research also provides a logical basis for how these edible mushrooms are evaluated as food, potentially grading them in the same way that the best wines in the world are. Mushroom hunters claiming to have the most delicious porcini may have reason to back that claim with the duo’s data, made possible with funding from the National Science Foundation and the resources at the NHMU.

More information on the paper, which has been published in the journal, The New Phytologist, can be found here.