|Biodiversity in the Western Ghats: An Information Kit (IIRR, 1994, 224 p.)|
|6. Plants, fungi and bacteria|
There is a strong bias in most people's thinking about biological. conservation. We worry about the future of giant pandas in China, orang-utans in Indonesia, tigers of India and the mountain gorillas in Africa. Humans seem to have an emotional investment in these and other large animals. We also worry about trees and flowering plants. Large sums of money are raised and spent to save such species.
But when it comes to fungi, what do we find? Here is a whole kingdom made up of hundreds and thousands of species!
· Carry out most global recycling.
· Are vital to crop production through mycorrhizal relationships with plant roots.
· Give us penicillin, griseofulvin, cyclosporine, anticancer taxol and other medicines.
· Enrich our diet with their tasty fruit bodies.
· Enable us to make bread, wine and some of the best cheeses.
In situ conservation
Like other organisms, fun&i can be conserved both in situ (in their natural environment) and ex situ (outside this environment). Ex situ conservation of fungi normally means in test tubes in the laboratory.
Nowhere in the world is there a single plot of ground dedicated solely to the preservation of fungal biodiversity. A suitable site for such a reserve could be in the moist forests of the Western Ghats in southern India, where the fungi enjoy a long fruiting season, display exuberant biodiversity, and play a vital role in the dynamics of the ecosystem. The decomposers on fallen trees and on all kinds of plant litter; their penetrative and digestive talents; the mutualistic abilities of symbionts (e.g., the mycorrhizae and lichens); the tree-killers; parasites; leaf-spots and the cannibals! Many more hitherto unknown fungi await recognition from the Western Ghat "hotspots". Preservation of these forests should be our priority task.
"Hotspots" of fungal diversity along the Western
Ghats include the following forests:
· Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife
· Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary, Cotigao
· Kaiga forests, North
· Sharvati river valley, Genusoppa
· Kodachadri hills, Shimoga
· Bababudangiri, Chikmagalur
· Nilgiri hills range
· Mundandurai Wildlife Sanctuary, Kalakadu
Fungi are small, simple organisms, so they can be conserved in the laboratory relatively easily. They must be kept in a nutrient medium of agar (a jelly-like substance made from seaweed) and other ingredients. The best combination of ingredients for the medium depends on the type of fungi to be maintained.
The fungi are first grown in glass petri dishes containing nutrients. They are then transferred to test tubes containing nutrients and are stored at low temperature. The cultures can be maintained for hundreds of years.
International organizations help conserve fungal cultures. Most of the cultures isolated from Western Ghats fungi have been deposited at the International Mycological Institute in the United Kingdom. The Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, maintains the national culture collection.
The world's chief collections of fungal cultures are in Washington, D.C. (United States of America), Baam (the Netherlands) and Kew (United Kingdom).
Fungi in biotechnology
Fungi are used extensively in biotechnological processes. For example, breweries all over the world use yeasts with biotechnoloigcally engineered genes. The flavour of the beer has a lot to do with the strain of yeast.
Fungal culture collections contain many novel genomes, so will have much use in biotechnology for' medicine, food, -agriculture and industry.
To grow yeast, you will need
· 1 packet starter
· 1 tablespoon sugar
· 200 ml warm water
Dissolve the sugar in water. Sprinkle the yeast on top. Leave the jar in a warm room. As the yeast begins to use the sugar, the jar will fill with foam. Foam is formed as the yeast changes the sugar into CO2. Baker's yeast is the earliest known biotechnological use of fungi.
What is bread?
Bread dough is mixed with a little sugar and yeast. Each yeast cell feeds on the sugar, swells up and splits into two new cells. Each new cell in turn feeds, swells and splits, forming millions of new yeast cells. These cells form and form carbon dioxide bubbles inside the dough, making the dough rise. When the bread is baked, the bubbles are filled with air. Without yeast to change the sugar into CO2, the dough won't rise. Yeast adds flavour, too.
Fungi in biotechnology
Prepared by Dr. D. J. Bhat