Fungi could help tackle some of the world’s big challenges, such as finding clean fuels and tackling plastic rubbish, experts have said.
A report from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, estimates there are about three million species of fungi, but the experts behind the study said little was known about this “Jekyll and Hyde” kingdom of nature.
Many species could be under threat as a result of habitat loss, nitrogen pollution and climate change, with wider impacts on the wildlife and natural systems that rely on them, the first State of the World’s Fungi study warned.
But only 56 species have had their conservation status assessed for the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, compared with 25,452 plants and 68,054 animals.
More than 2,000 new species of fungi were found last year, in the soil, forests and caves, but new micro-species were also found in diverse places including under fingernails, on a baby carrier and on oil paintings.
Analysis of a packet of porcini mushrooms from the supermarket has even revealed three new species, the experts at Kew said.
They are hugely important to life, with fungi that grow around roots and help plants absorb more water and nutrients, helping around 90% of the world’s plants thrive.
One new species identified in the sandy desert soils of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) could be helping lime, pomegranate and grape plants survive the harsh conditions.
But they can also be among some of the most dangerous organisms, responsible for problems such as ash dieback and honey fungus.
Around 350 species are eaten by humans, from truffles to common mushrooms, meat substitutes and blue cheese, as well as products such as beer and bread which need yeast, in a market worth £32 billion a year.
They also provide medicines, such as penicillin, statins and immunosuppressant drugs needed for transplants, and speed up chemical processes in industry.
And fungi could help tackle environmental challenges, the report said.
A fungus has been found in a rubbish tip in Pakistan which is capable of breaking down plastics such as polyester polyurethane in weeks rather than hundreds of years, raising hopes of new ways to tackle global plastic pollution.
Fungi living in plants which can break down molecules in plant cell walls directly into chemicals with similar properties to diesel could help make biofuels more economically and sustainably than at the moment.
And a fungus which can grow in extremely acidic conditions and tolerate high levels of gamma radiation could help clean up sites contaminated by radioactive waste, the report said.
Director of science at Kew, Professor Kathy Willis, said: “The potential of fungi to address clearly critical problems we have is very strong.”
And she said: “This report represents the first time the understanding of fungi is brought together in one document.
“This is an incredibly diverse, yet hidden kingdom. Our knowledge of fungi is so small in comparison to plants and animals.
“And yet in terms of addressing global challenges going forward, fungi may well hold many of the answers.”
She added: “They are the Jekyll and Hyde, because they are important for all aspects of life on Earth but they are also some of the most devastating organisms to life on Earth.”
She warned that because many fungi were not easily visible, they were not valued, and therefore not conserved, while habitats such as woodland and wetland edges where they are found are being lost.
“We need to change this because with climate change many fungi are getting very stressed, they like rain, they like damp, moist environments, as things get drier and hotter, things getting lost are those key fungi.”
Climate change could harm beneficial species, with knock-on effects on the survival of plants and reducing the storage of carbon, while rising temperatures could also mean the spread of fungal pathogens.
But they could also help plants alleviate some of the effects of climate change such as drought and increased flooding, the report said.
Prof Willis added there was a significant lack of knowledge about the threats to fungi or how they were changing because of climate change, and more research was needed into them.