A bumper crop of fungi

The Fungal Kingdom, edited by Joseph Heitman, Barbara J. Howlett, Pedro W. Crous, Eva H. Stukenbrock, Timothy Y. James and Neil A. R. Gow, 2018. American Society for Microbiology Press

The Fungal Kingdom coberThere has been a veritable mushrooming of fungus books of late (e.g. the trio from Nicholas Money – Fungi: A Very Short Introduction (2016), Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History (2017), and The Rise of Yeast: How the sugar fungus shaped civilisation (2018)).

What can we deduce from that? Two things, I think: Single-authored, more-populist books on fungal topics are publication-worthy; and there is a genuine interest in matters fungal (or else publishers wouldn’t be publishing them). Added to those we now have the American Society for Microbiology’s mighty ‘magnum opus’ the Fungal Kingdom, edited by Joseph Heitman et al. The contrast between this latest fungal tome and Money’s books is quite stark: the Fungal Kingdom has 6 Editors and >170 contributors compared to Money’s sole-author outputs; the Fungal Kingdom contains 1136 pages, compared to Money’s combined page total of 546 (and the biggest Money book is just over half the page size of the Fungal Kingdom). Is there really room for both types of fungus book? Surely, one is better than the other..? Short answers: Yes, and No, respectively. Longer answers after some important background and context…

Why do we need books on fungi at all?

Mycology – the formal name for the study of fungi – is in a bit of a crisis at present. It has been for some time and this was formally recognised in the UK about a decade ago when the lack of experts who could identify fungi was officially acknowledged. Despite the undoubted good that fungi do for the planet as a whole (for instance, all nutrient cycles – and hence life as we know it… – would probably cease to exist were it not for the essential decomposing activities of fungi), and for humankind specifically (e.g. as historic sources of antibiotics such as penicillin, and drugs such as statins), there are too few people studying them. Indeed, far too few are receiving any introduction to the wonders of fungi because insufficient attention is paid to this Kingdom at all levels of the education system (e.g. David Moore et al., Mycologist 19: 152-158, 2005; doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0269-915X(05)00404-0) – in the UK at least, and one believes, more globally. This is very short-sighted, and shouldn’t be allowed to continue.

Knowledge of fungi, particular of the diseases they cause, is especially important when we are concerned about future food security and the impact upon it by such serious fungal pathogens as the Ug99* infection of wheat. And we are in dire need of better antibiotics to combat the increasing problem of antibacterial resistance amongst bacteria that are harmful to human health, which are likely to come from fungal sources. Although not everybody can be expected to want to study fungi, if we are to make a difference to society and its future, as many people as possible need to be introduced to this amazing group of life forms because they will be contributors of taxes that are often needed to fund further study of fungi for the future benefit of humanity. Appropriately educating the public in fungal matters can only help people understand the need for research into this subject, and encourage them to contribute to such work.

OK, but why fungal books like those of Money and Heitman et al.?

And that’s why we need books like Money’s sole-authored, more populist tomes on the one hand, and the multi-contributor, specialist volumes such as Heitman et al’s the Fungal Kingdom on the other. The former are important and necessary because they are accessible to all and written in a way that grabs the attention and makes an impact on the general reader, the contributor to taxes that could fund fungus research. The latter have their value in an educational setting to give the necessary rigour and depth of understanding to the current crop of undergraduates who’ve yet to be switched on to study of fungi, but amongst whose numbers reside the fungal researchers of the future.

So, what’s so good about the Fungal Kingdom?

Heitman et al’s the Fungal Kingdom is a timely, stylish, authoritative and very impressive fungal biology textbook. Its rigour and pedagogic credentials are clear when one recognises that references are cited in-text for each of its 54 chapters, and that only 5 of the chapters have fewer than 100 references [Chapter 48 – “Host-microsporidia interactions in Caenorhabditis elegans, a model for nematode host – has the fewest at 28; the stand-out ‘winner’ is Chapter 39 “Fungi that infect humans” with a whopping 374 references(!)]. The range of topics covered by the Fungal Kingdom is such that a pretty complete appreciation of the modern-day focus of fungal biology should be gained, as well as sufficient essential background to fungal studies to set those modern-day developments and concerns into appropriate context.

In terms of the level at which the textbook is aimed, I’d hesitate to recommend it for first year undergraduates in the UK higher educational system, but it should fare well with those in year 2 and above. Indeed, it will be a useful source of fungal information for those post-graduation and especially subject specialists in other areas – particularly if they are invited to include aspects of fungal biology in their own subject teaching. This botanist for one found it very informative and useful for his Plants and People undergraduate module (wherein fungi get a good mention as ‘honorary plants’…).

Take-home message

The context provided above justifies why authoritative and education-focused tomes, such as the Fungal Kingdom, are important and necessary to engender that appreciation and understanding of fungi in what one hopes will be the next generation of fungal specialists. Our future on this planet is in large part in their hands. Should they not take up the challenge of studying fungi, then we’re all in trouble, big trouble. No pressure, then. We therefore wish the Fungal Kingdom all the very best in its noblest of endeavours.


* Somewhat surprisingly, given its recent prominence, Ug99 was not found in the Index to the Fungal Kingdom (!). However, I’m pleased to say that I tracked it down in-text on page 791 (appropriately, in Chapter 38 “Emerging fungal threats”).