American Journal of Botany 98(3): 426–438. 2011.
American Journal of Botany 98(3): 426–438, 2011; http://www.amjbot.org/ © 2011 Botanical Society of America
What are Fungi? — Fungal biologists debated for more than
200 years about which organisms should be counted as Fungi.
In less than 5 years, DNA sequencing provided a multitude of
new characters for analysis and identiﬁ ed about 10 phyla as
members of the monophyletic kingdom Fungi ( Fig. 1 ). Mycolo-
gists beneﬁ ted from early developments applied directly to
fungi. The “ universal primers, ” so popular in the early 1990s
for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), actually were de-
signed for fungi ( Innis et al., 1990 ; White et al., 1990 ). Use of
the PCR was a monumental advance for those who studied min-
ute, often unculturable, organisms. Problems of too few mor-
phological characters (e.g., yeasts), noncorresponding characters
among taxa (e.g., asexual and sexual states), and convergent
morphologies (e.g., long-necked perithecia producing sticky
ascospores selected for insect dispersal) were suddenly over-
come. Rather than producing totally new hypotheses of rela-
tionships, however, it is interesting to note that many of the new
ﬁ ndings supported previous, competing hypotheses that had
been based on morphological evidence ( Alexopoulos et al.,
1996 ; Stajich et al., 2009 ). Sequences and phylogenetic analy-
ses were used not only to hypothesize relationships, but also to
identify taxa rapidly ( Kurtzman and Robnett, 1998 ; Brock
et al., 2009 ; Begerow et al., 2010 ).
Most fungi lack ﬂ agella and have ﬁ lamentous bodies with
distinctive cell wall carbohydrates and haploid thalli as a result
of zygotic meiosis. They interact with all major groups of or-
ganisms. By their descent from an ancestor shared with animals
about a billion years ago plus or minus 500 million years
( Berbee and Taylor, 2010 ), the Fungi constitute a major eukary-
otic lineage equal in numbers to animals and exceeding plants
( Figs. 2 – 10 ). The group includes molds, yeasts, mushrooms,
polypores, plant parasitic rusts and smuts, and Penicillium
chrysogenum , Neurospora crassa , Saccharomyces cerevisiae ,
and Schizosaccharomyces pombe , the important model organ-
isms studied by Nobel laureates.
Phylogenetic studies provided evidence that nucleriid pro-
tists are the sister group of Fungi ( Medina et al., 2003 ), nonpho-
tosynthetic heterokont ﬂ agellates are placed among brown
algae and other stramenopiles, and slime mold groups are ex-
cluded from Fungi ( Alexopoulos et al., 1996 ). Current phyloge-
netic evidence suggests that the ﬂ agellum may have been lost
several times among the early-diverging fungi and that there is
more diversity among early diverging zoosporic and zygosporic
lineages than previously realized ( Bowman et al., 1992 ; Blackwell
et al., 2006 ; Hibbett et al., 2007 ; Stajich et al., 2009 ).
Sequences of one or several genes are no longer evidence
enough in phylogenetic research. A much-cited example of the
kind of problem that may occur when single genes with differ-
ent rates of change are used in analyses involves Microsporidia.
These organisms were misinterpreted as early-diverging eu-
karyotes in the tree of life based on their apparent reduced mor-
phology ( Cavalier-Smith, 1983 ). Subsequently, phylogenetic
analyses using small subunit ribosomal RNA genes wrongly
supported a microsporidian divergence before the origin of mi-
tochondria in eukaryotic organisms ( Vossbrinck et al., 1987 ).
More recent morphological and physiological studies have not
upheld this placement, and analyses of additional sequences,
including those of protein-coding genes, support the view that
these obligate intracellular parasites of insect and vertebrate
1 Manuscript received 10 August 2010; revision accepted 19 January 2011.
The author thanks N. H. Nguyen, H. Raja, and J. A. Robertson for
permission to use their photographs, two anonymous reviewers who helped
to improve the manuscript, and David Hibbett, who graciously provided
an unpublished manuscript. She acknowledges funding from NSF DEB-
0417180 and NSF-0639214.
2 Author for correspondence (e-mail: email@example.com)
T HE FUNGI: 1, 2, 3 … 5.1 MILLION SPECIES? 1
Meredith Blackwell 2
Department of Biological Sciences; Louisiana State University; Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70803 USA
• Premise of the study: Fungi are major decomposers in certain ecosystems and essential associates of many organisms. They
provide enzymes and drugs and serve as experimental organisms. In 1991, a landmark paper estimated that there are 1.5 million
fungi on the Earth. Because only 70 000 fungi had been described at that time, the estimate has been the impetus to search for
previously unknown fungi. Fungal habitats include soil, water, and organisms that may harbor large numbers of understudied
fungi, estimated to outnumber plants by at least 6 to 1. More recent estimates based on high-throughput sequencing methods
suggest that as many as 5.1 million fungal species exist.
• Methods: Technological advances make it possible to apply molecular methods to develop a stable classiﬁ cation and to dis-
cover and identify fungal taxa.
• Key results: Molecular methods have dramatically increased our knowledge of Fungi in less than 20 years, revealing a mono-
phyletic kingdom and increased diversity among early-diverging lineages. Mycologists are making signiﬁ cant advances in
species discovery, but many fungi remain to be discovered.
• Conclusions: Fungi are essential to the survival of many groups of organisms with which they form associations. They also
attract attention as predators of invertebrate animals, pathogens of potatoes and rice and humans and bats, killers of frogs and
crayﬁ sh, producers of secondary metabolites to lower cholesterol, and subjects of prize-winning research. Molecular tools in
use and under development can be used to discover the world ’ s unknown fungi in less than 1000 years predicted at current new
species acquisition rates.
Key words: biodiversity; fungal habitats; fungal phylogeny; fungi; molecular methods; numbers of fungi.
March 2011] Blackwell — Fungal numbers
Fig. 1. Fungal phyla and approximate number of species in each group
( Kirk et al., 2008 ). Evidence from gene order conversion and multilocus
sequencing indicates that microsporidians are Fungi (see below; Lee et al.,
2010 ). Note also that zoosporic and zygosporic fungal groups are not sup-
ported as monophyletic. Tree based on Hibbett et al. (2007) , White et al.
(2006) , and James et al. (2006) .
hosts are members of the Fungi ( Keeling, 2009 ; Corradi and
Keeling, 2009 ). Additional evidence from genome structure as
well as phylogenetic analyses, supports the inclusion of mi-
crosporidians within the Fungi and indicates that comparison of
whole genomes contributes to the solution of challenging phy-
logenetic problems ( Lee et al., 2010 ).
The level of resolution and sophistication of systematics
studies made possible by molecular markers and phylogenetic
analyses put mycologists on equal footing with other biologists
for competitive funding, and they joined in several community-
wide efforts to organize fungal diversity within a phylogenetic
classiﬁ cation. Three projects funded by the National Science
Foundation were initiated, including the Research Coordination
Network: A Phylogeny for Kingdom Fungi (Deep Hypha) and
successive Tree of Life projects, Assembling the Fungal Tree
of Life (AFTOL-1) and a second ongoing project (AFTOL-2)
( Blackwell et al., 2006 ). A major product of the Deep Hypha
project was the publication of 24 papers on fungal phylogeny in
a single journal issue ( Mycologia 98: 829 – 1103). The papers
included an introduction to progress in fungal phylogeny, a
paper on dating the origin of Fungi, one on the evolution of
morphological traits, and 21 articles with multilocus phyloge-
nies of most major groups. Participants included 156 authors
with some involved in more than one paper; only 72 of the au-
thors were originally from North America. The multi-investigator
AFTOL-1 publication ( Hibbett et al., 2007 ) included a widely
used and often cited phylogenetic classiﬁ cation to the level of
order (e.g., Kirk et al., 2008 ; The NCBI Entrez Taxonomy Home-
page, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/taxonomy; Science Watch,
The paper included 68 authors from more than 20 countries.
It is important to note that there was broad participation and,
essentially, global involvement on these projects, emphasizing
that studies of biodiversity are indeed global endeavors. Addi-
tional pages were contributed to the Tree of Life web project
(http://www.tolweb.org/Fungi/2377) to make information on
fungi more accessible to students and the general public. Two
objectives of the ongoing AFTOL-2 project include increased
taxon sampling of fungi for molecular data and the discovery of
correlated morphological and biochemical characters (AFTOL
Structural and Biochemical Database, https://aftol.umn.edu;
Celio et al., 2006 ).
Known fungal species — The Dictionary of Fungi ( Kirk
et al., 2008 ) reported 97 330 species of described fungi at the
“ numbers of fungi ” entry. The addition of 1300 microsporidi-
ans brings the total of all described fungi to about 99 000 spe-
cies ( Fig. 1 ). The Dictionary ’ s estimate of known species has
almost tripled in the period between the ﬁ rst edition in 1943
(38 000 described species) and now, amounting to an increase
of more than 60 000 described species over the 65-yr period
( Fig. 11 ). Factors such as difﬁ culty of isolation and failure to
apply molecular methods may contribute to lower numbers of
species in certain groups, but there cannot be any doubt that
ascomycetes and basidiomycetes comprise the vast majority of
fungal diversity ( Fig. 1 ).
Estimated total fungal numbers — In 1991, a landmark
paper provided several qualiﬁ ed estimates of the number of fungi
on the Earth based on ratios of known fungi to plant species
in regions where fungi were considered to be well-studied
( Hawksworth, 1991 ). “ Estimate G ” of 1.5 million species was
accepted as a reasonable working hypothesis based on a fungus
to plant ratio of 6 : 1, in contrast to the much lower 50 – 60-yr-old
estimates by Bisby and Ainsworth (1943) of 100 000 fungal
species and by Martin (1951) of 250 000 species based on one
fungus for every phanerogam known at the time. A more recent
estimate of the total number of fungi, 720 256 ( Schmit and
Mueller, 2007 ), is also low compared to present estimates that
include environmental samples.
Hawksworth ’ s (1991) estimate now is considered to be con-
servative by many, including Hawksworth ( Hawksworth and
Rossman, 1997 ), because numerous potential fungal habitats
and localities remain understudied ( Hawksworth, 2001 ). Fur-
thermore, the use of molecular methods had not yet been con-
sidered as a means of species discovery. For example, analysis
of environmental DNA samples from a soil community re-
vealed a high rate of new species accumulation at the site, and
these data supported an estimate of 3.5 to 5.1 million species
( O ’ Brien et al., 2005 ). Using the present discovery rate of about
1200 fungal species per year based on the last 10 years, Hibbett
and his colleagues (in press) estimated that it would take 1170
years to describe 1.4 million fungi (based on Estimate G of
Hawksworth  ) and 2840 to 4170 yr to describe 3.5 to 5.1
million (based on O ’ Brien et al., 2005 ).
Using present higher estimates of land plant numbers as
somewhat under 400 000 species ( Paton et al., 2008 ; Joppa
et al., 2010 ) fungal species numbers now are expected to outnum-
ber land plants by as much as 10.6 : 1 based on O ’ Brien et al.
(2005) . Even higher ratios have been predicted using data from
high-throughput sequencing of clone libraries, although indi-
vidual ecosystems will vary (L. Taylor, University of Alaska,
Fairbanks, personal communication, January 2011). The large gap
between known and estimated species numbers has led to a series
428 American Journal of Botany [Vol. 98
March 2011] Blackwell — Fungal numbers
DNA methodology makes it possible to use independent
sampling methods to discover the presence of organisms with-
out ever seeing a culture or a specimen. Several new methods
signiﬁ cantly outperform previous automated sequencing meth-
ods (e.g., Jumpponen and Jones, 2009 ; Metzker, 2010 ). Al-
though there may be certain limitations and biases for the
different methods ( Amend et al., 2010a ; Tedersoo et al., 2010 ),
mycologists have been quick to embrace them in ecological and
biodiversity studies. O ’ Brien and colleagues (2005) pointed out
that collection and culture methods revealed numbers of fungi
similar to those acquired by sampling environmental DNA.
Hibbett et al. (in press) , however, used data from GenBank to
show that by 2008 and 2009 the number of environmental
samples, excluding overwhelming numbers of sequences dis-
covered by pyrosequencing, exceeded the accessions of speci-
men-based sequences. The rapid development of automated,
high-throughput methods also has made it possible to acquire
whole genome sequences for population level studies ( Liti
et al., 2009 ; Neafsey et al., 2010 ).
Which regions of the Earth harbor fungal diversity? — Fungi
grow in almost all habitats on Earth, surpassed only by bacteria
in their ability to withstand extremes in temperature, water ac-
tivity, and carbon source ( Raspor and Zupan, 2006 ). Tropical
regions of the world are considered to have the highest diversity
for most groups of organisms ( Pianka, 1966 ; Hillebrand, 2004 ),
and this is generally true for fungi as well ( Arnold and Lutzoni,
A group of researchers are studying the diversity of the Guy-
ana Shield. For the last 11 years, Terry Henkel and Cathie Aime
and their colleagues have studied the fungi in six 1-km
2 plots —
three in a Dicymbe corymbosa -dominated forest and three in a
mixed tropical forest. Their current collections contain 1200
morphospecies, primarily basidiomycetes. Approximately 260
species were collected repeatedly only in the Dicymbe plots.
Thus far, two new genera and ca. 50 new species have been
of papers and symposia (e.g., Hawksworth and Rossman, 1997 ;
Hawksworth, 2001 ; Hyde, 2001 ; Mueller and Schmit, 2007 ) at-
tempting to answer the question “ Where are the missing fungi? ”
How to discover new fungi — Collecting and culturing fungi
from the environment will remain important because of the
need to identify specimens, revise taxonomy, assess the roles in
the environment, and provide strains for biological control, en-
vironmental remediation, and industrial processes. A physical
specimen, including an inert culture, is still required as a type
specimen (but see Conclusions later), and vouchers of known
fungi are used for documenting DNA sequences deposited in
some databases ( Nilsson et al., 2006 ). For example, the current
AFTOL project has a requirement that each sequence deposited
as part of the project be linked to a specimen, including a
All taxa biological inventories (ATBIs) attempt to survey or-
ganisms within particular geographical regions by collection of
specimens and culture of substrates. One of these, Discover
Life in America, All Taxa Biological Inventory, seeks to survey
an estimated 50 000 to 100 000 species of organisms in the
Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Karen Hughes and
Ronald Petersen have been successful in collecting more
than 3000 species of fungi, mostly agarics housed in the Uni-
versity of Tennessee Fungal Herbarium (http://tenn.bio.utk.edu/
out of about 17 000 species of all taxa that have been collected
by others in the park (Biodiversity Surveys and Inventories:
Agaric Diversity in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,
NSF DEB 0338699). All fungal specimens have been identi-
ﬁ ed, and the agarics have been studied to the extent that a cul-
ture, ITS barcode sequence, and genetic analysis are available
for many species. This successful project has required hours of
time over a number of years and costly resources for studying
the material, but it serves as an example of the commitment
needed to acquire specimen-based information on fungi.
Figs. 2 – 10. Examples of fungal diversity. 2. Lemonniera sp. Tetraradiate conidia developed on a submerged leaf in a well-aerated freshwater stream
surrounded by lush vegetation. This type of aquatic species, an Ingoldian ascomycete, is named for C. T. Ingold, who pioneered the study of these fungi,
that are characterized by highly branched conidia. Photo courtesy of H. Raja. 3. The aero-aquatic ascomycete Helicoon gigantisporum produces distinctive
tightly coiled conidia. As the spore develops air is trapped in the coil and causes it to be buoyant. This feature is an adaptation for the polyphyletic aero-
aquatic fungi that grow on leaves in slow-moving or stagnant freshwater. Photo courtesy of H. Raja. 4. The smut Testicularia sp. develops in the ovary of
grasses and (as shown here) sedges. The spores mature sequentially, with the dark spores being more mature. A plant taxonomy student once thought he
had discovered a new species of Leersia , distinguished by large ovaries of ca. 1 cm, only to be disappointed that the enlargement was caused by a fungus.
It is helpful to mycologists when plant taxonomists collect and accession fungal diversity by selecting some diseased plant specimens, an activity that
should be encouraged. 5. Perithecia of Pyxidiophora sp. (Laboulbeniomycetes) developed in moist chamber on moose dung from Meredith Station, New
Brunswick, Canada. The 150 µ m long ascospores are seen at the tip of the perithecium neck in the center. Spores adhere to phoretic mites that are carried
by dung beetles to fresh dung piles. Some fungi have complex animal dispersal systems. Pyxidiophora species are usually mycoparasites that grow on fungi
in dung or other substrates including wrack washed up on beaches. The genus is a “ missing link ” and provided clues to conﬁ rm that Laboulbeniomycetes
are ascomycetes and not other kinds of fungi or ﬂ oridian red algae. 6. The ca. 8 cm wide basidiomata of Pycnoporus sp., a wide-ranging, brightly colored,
wood-decaying polypore, photographed at Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Some collectors have referred to basidiomycetes that produce colorful basidi-
omata as charismatic megamycota of the fungus world. 7. Peniophorella baculorubrensis , a bark-decaying basidiomycete common on and restricted to
living live oak ( Quercus virginiana ), decays the bark and changes its water-holding capacity. The effect of decay on bryophyte communties by this fungus
was ﬁ rst studied by ecologists ( Penfound and Mackaness, 1940 ) more than 70 yr ago but was not described until a specialist on wood-decaying fungi hap-
pened to notice it on the Louisiana State University campus, Baton Rouge ( Gilbertson and Blackwell, 1984 ). The inconspicuous basidiomata are shown
growing on the lower side of a 7 cm long bark segment aimed downward for basidiospore discharge in response to gravity. 8. Basidiomata of Perenniporia
phloiophila on the bark of living Quercus virginiana . Although the basidiomata are obvious against the darker bark, this species was not described until it
was discovered at the same time and often on the same trees as Peniophorella baculorubrensis . Although the fungus usually rots only the outer bark, it will
invade and decay wood whenever the vascular cambium is broached by a bird or insect. In addition to the two species on live oak, six other species have
been described from the campus, illustrating the need for specialists to study noncharismatic fungi. 9. A basidioma (8 cm diameter) of the wood-decaying
fungus, Favolus tenuiculus , a favorite food of several species of mushroom-feeding beetles (see Fig. 10 ). Photo courtesy of N. H. Nguyen. 10. The small
( > 10 mm long) brightly colored beetle, Mycotretus sp. (Erotylidae), was collected at Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Many erotylid beetles have special-
ized yeast-packed pouches at the anterior end of the midgut. More than 200 novel yeasts have been isolated from the gut of ca. 15 families of mushroom-
feeding beetles ( Suh et al., 2005 ). Photo courtesy of James A. Robertson.
430 American Journal of Botany [Vol. 98
In temperate deserts, mycorrhizal boletes, agarics, and rust
and smut fungi, are common. A surprising number of wood-
decaying basidiomycetes have been discovered on living and
dead desert plants, including cacti and are in the University of
Arizona, Robert L. Gilbertson Mycological Herbarium (http://
ag.arizona.edu/mycoherb/herbholdings). When a noted mycol-
ogist moved to Arizona early in his career, he became excited
about the new and unreported fungal diversity found in the des-
ert. His proposed study of the wood-decaying fungi of the
Sonoran Desert was poorly received with a comment that wood-
decaying fungi were not present in the desert (R. L. Gilbertson,
University of Arizona, personal communication, August 1979).
The Sonoran Desert, however, has many plants (e.g., cacti, oco-
tillo, and mesquite and other desert legumes) that are substrates
for polypores and resupinate basidiomycetes (e.g., Gilbertson
and Ryvarden, 1986 , 1987 ).
Fungi also grow at low temperatures. An example involves
fungal deterioration of historic huts built between 1901 and
1911 for use by Antarctic explorers including Robert Scott and
Ernest Shackleton, and although there are not large species
numbers, it is important not to overlook this fungal habitat in
diversity studies ( Held et al., 2005 ). Lichens have often been
reported to be common in Arctic and Antarctic regions ( Wirtz
et al., 2008 ), and yeasts are active under frozen conditions in
the Antarctic ( Vishniac, 2006 ; Amato et al., 2009 ). In some
cases, a yeast isolated from the Antarctic (based on 28S rDNA
barcoding) also has been reported from varied habitats, includ-
ing human infections, the gut of insects, deep seas, and hydro-
carbon seeps ( Kurtzman and Fell, 1998 ; Bass et al., 2007 ;
personal observation). Although some fungi are specialized for
cold regions, others simply occupy a wide variety of environ-
Many regions and habitats of the world need to be included
in fungal discovery. In general, microscopic fungi and those
that cannot be cultured are very poorly known. Parts of Africa
remain to be collected for many, although not all, fungal groups
( Crous et al., 2006 ). Fungi are important as symbionts, and they
are associated with every major group of organisms, bacteria,
plants and green algae, and animals including insects. Because
certain under-studied symbiotic associations are known to in-
clude large numbers of fungi, these are a good place to search
for new taxa. The associated organisms also allow for resam-
pling, a quick way to obtain data about host speciﬁ city. Target-
ing hosts also is a productive method for discovering fungal
fossils, such as those associated with plants of the Rhynie Chert
( Taylor et al., 2004 ). Examples of diversity in particular fungal
habitats are reviewed in the following sections.
Fungi and plant roots — Mycorrhizal plants and their fungal
partners have been studied by a number of mycologists ( Trappe,
1987 ; Smith and Read, 2008 ). The fungi often are essential to
their plant hosts because they take up water, nitrogen, phospho-
rus, and other nutrients from the soil and transfer them to the
plant roots. Some of these fungi may not prosper or even grow
without the host. In addition to ﬂ owering plants and conifers,
many bryophytes and ferns are mycorrhizal ( Pressel et al.,
2010 ). Certain mycorrhizal fungi specialize on orchids and eri-
coid plants, and some are known to have invaded new habitats
with successful invasive plants ( Pringle et al., 2009 ).
There are two main types of mycorrhizal fungi, arbuscular
mycorrhizae (AM) and ectomycorrhizae. AM associations are
more common and occur with up to 80% of all plant species and
92% of plant families. AM fungi are all members of the phylum
described. On the basis of groups already studied, Aime esti-
mated that ca. 120 new ectomycorrhizal taxa have been discov-
ered. Including novel saprobes as well as ectomycorrhizal
fungi, ca. 500 new species are expected among the 1200 taxa
collected. It is clear, however, that these are not simply high
numbers of new taxa, but biologically interesting fungi as well
( Aime et al., 2010 ). One species is so unusual, that a reviewer
of the original report called it “ the ﬁ nd of the century ” ( Redhead,
2002 ). As Aime has quipped “ if one were to compare the ratio
of fungi to plants in the Dicymbe plots as did Hawksworth
(1991) , the ratio would be 260 to 1, obviously an overestimate
but also a cautionary exercise in basing any estimate on a single
ecotype ” (M. C. Aime, Louisiana State University, personal
communication, August 2010).
Many fungi have in fact come from temperate regions, and
some studies report a high diversity of fungi. For example, in a
study of indoor air from buildings using culture-independent
sampling methods, diversity was found to be signiﬁ cantly
higher in temperate sites independent of building design or use.
The authors also alluded to the possibility that previous studies
of certain mycorrhizal fungi showed similar trends ( Amend
et al., 2010b ). More investigation in this area is needed, but it is
clear that many undescribed fungi are present in temperate re-
gions. Popular literature often rationalizes the need to save the
rainforests, not because of their intrinsic value, but because of
the potential drug-producing organisms that may be found
there. Many of the commercially most successful fungal drugs,
however, come from temperate fungi. Penicillium chrysoge-
num , producer of penicillin, was found in a northern temperate
city. Another remarkable fungus, Tolypocladium inﬂ atum from
Norwegian soil, synthesizes cyclosporine, an immune-suppres-
sant drug that revolutionized organ transplants ( Borel, 2002 );
the sexual state of this fungus was collected in New York, USA
( Hodge et al., 1996 ). Today the drug is commonly used to treat
dry eye ( Perry et al., 2008 ), as well as many serious conditions.
Statins produced by fungi such as Aspergillus terreus from tem-
perate regions, combat high cholesterol levels, as well as pro-
viding other beneﬁ ts ( Vaughan et al., 1996 ; Askenazi et al.,
2003 ; Baigent et al., 2005 ).
Fig. 11. Numbers of known fungi from the Dictionary of the Fungi
(editions 1 – 10, 1950 – 2008). Authors state that the large increase in species
numbers in the 10th edition may be inﬂ ated because asexual and sexual
forms were counted separately and molecular techniques that distinguish
close taxa have been used.
March 2011] Blackwell — Fungal numbers
phylloplane yeasts occupy leaf surfaces of many plants and
are increasingly recognized for their control of potential leaf
pathogens ( Fonseca and In á cio, 2006 ). In addition to the
thousands of native fungi that parasitize plants in the United
States, pathologists are constantly on the lookout for introduced
pathogens that often are undescribed when they arrive to deci-
mate na ï ve native plant populations. For example, invasive
fungi such as those grouped as Dutch elm disease fungi, chest-
nut blight fungus, dogwood anthracnose fungus, and redbay
wilt fungus, were all unknown until they were observed soon
after their introduction ( Alexopoulos et al., 1996 ; Zhang and
Blackwell, 2001 ; Harrington et al., 2008 ). Exotic localities will
need to be searched for undescribed fungi that probably go
largely unnoticed on their native hosts. It is important to note
that although fungi may cause only minor symptoms to hosts in
their native habitats, one of these may have the potential to be
the next destructive disease after introduction to a new region.
Molecular methods have helped to clarify limits of closely
related species and to establish host ranges (e.g., Crous et al.,
2008 ). In a study of 26 leaf spot fungi in Australia, three genera
of Myrtaceae, including Eucalyptus , were hosts for three new
genera and 20 new species ( Cheewangkoon et al., 2009 ). Al-
though the authors acknowledged the high level of new taxa
discovered, they pointed out that the potential for host shifts
within plantations might lower estimates of fungal species
numbers worldwide. Host or substrate speciﬁ city is a concept
that can be applied to fungal groups that are closely associated
with hosts such as endophytes, pathogens, and mycorrhizal
fungi but not usually for saprobic species ( Zhou and Hyde,
2001 ). In the past species of plant pathogens often were based
on host identity, a practice that is not always effective because
some groups are host-speciﬁ c while others are not.
Lichens and lichenicolus fungi — About 20% of all fungi
and 40% of the ascomycetes (13 500 species) are lichen-forming
fungi ( Lutzoni and Miadlikowska, 2009 ). Lichenicolous fungi,
parasites, and other associates of lichens are not well col-
lected, but an estimate for the combined lichens and licheni-
colous fungi is about 20 000 species ( Feuerer and Hawksworth,
2007 ). Lichens and lichenicolous fungi are polyphyletic, and
several different groups of ascomycetes and a few species of
basidiomycetes have become associated with green algae and
cyanobacteria ( Lutzoni and Miadlikowska, 2009 ). Feuerer
(2010) can be consulted for information on lichen diversity
worldwide. This checklist also highlights the absence of collec-
tions in certain regions.
Deserts are rich in lichens. Of 1971 lichen species and asso-
ciated fungi reported from the Sonoran Desert, about 25% stud-
ied since 1990 are new. Three volumes on lichens of the greater
Sonoran Desert region have been published ( Nash et al., 2002 ,
2004 ). Other habitats of high lichen diversity are Arctic and
Antarctic regions ( Feuerer, 2010 ).
Fungi from arthropod and invertebrate animals — There is
a need for more information on arthropod- and insect-associated
fungi. As was mentioned earlier, estimates of global fungal di-
versity usually omit insect-associated species because they are
so poorly known ( Hawksworth, 1991 ; Rossman, 1994 ; Mueller
and Schmit, 2007 ; Schmit and Mueller, 2007 ). Several post-
1991 estimates of insect-associated fungi suggested that 20 000 –
50 000 species exist ( Rossman, 1994 ; Weir and Hammond 1997a ,
b ; Schmit and Mueller, 2007 ). Some parasites are biotrophic,
associated with living insects, and many do not grow in culture.
Glomeromycota, a less diverse group than ectomycorrhizal
fungi with about 250 described species in a variety of taxa
( Gerdemann, 1968 ; Sch ü ß ler and Walker, 2011; Wang and Qiu,
2006 ). Evidence from recent molecular studies, however, indi-
cates that cryptic species with higher levels of host speciﬁ city
than previously realized will increase the number of known AM
fungi ( Selosse et al., 2006 ; Smith and Read, 2008 ). More than
6000 species, mostly of mushroom-forming basidiomycetes,
form ectomycorrhizae with about 10% of all plant families.
Greater host speciﬁ city usually occurs in the ectomycorrhizal
fungus – plant associations than in AM associations ( Smith and
Read, 2008 ). Vast parts of the world remain to be sampled
( Mueller et al., 2007 ), and it is expected that barriers to inter-
breeding have led to high genetic diversity among these fungi
( Petersen and Hughes, 2007 ).
Inside plant leaves and stems — Almost all plants on Earth
are infected with endophytes, fungi that do not cause disease
symptoms ( Saikkonen et al., 1998 ). Endophytes occur between
the cells, usually of above ground plant parts, and represent a
broad array of taxonomic groups ( Arnold, 2007 ; Rodriguez
et al., 2009 ). The earliest studies of endophytes were of those as-
sociated with grasses ( Diehl, 1950 ). Some grass endophytes are
specialized members of the Clavicipitaceae, relatives of insect
and fungal parasites in the Hypocreales, and many species pro-
duce alkaloid toxins effective against insects, other invertebrate
animals, and vertebrates ( Clay et al., 1993 ). Some grass endo-
phytes are transmitted to the host offspring in seeds, and others
inhibit sexual reproduction in the host and are dispersed within
plant parts such as leaf fragments. For grass endophytes that
reproduce sexually, fertilization may occur by insect dispersal.
Water intake is increased in infected hosts, and these plants
often grow taller than uninfected hosts.
A much more diverse group of endophytic fungi are associ-
ated with plants in addition to grasses, including a variety of
dicots and conifers ( Carroll, 1988 ; Rodriguez et al., 2009 ). In
some tropical forests considered to be diversity hotspots for en-
dophytes, there are extremely large numbers of the fungi, some-
times with hundreds reported from a single tree species, judged
by both cultural and molecular methods of discovery and iden-
tiﬁ cation ( Arnold et al., 2001 ; Arnold and Lutzoni, 2007 ;
Pinruan et al., 2007 ; Rodriguez et al., 2009 ). In one study, more
than 400 unique morphotypes were isolated from 83 leaves of
two species of tropical trees. A subset of the fungi was distrib-
uted among at least seven orders of ascomycetes ( Arnold et al.,
2000 ). Leaves usually acquired multiple infections as they ma-
tured, and there was strong evidence that the endophytes pro-
tected leaves of plants, such as Theobroma cacao , from infection
when they were challenged with pathogens ( Arnold et al.,
2003 ). Vega and colleagues (2010) also found high diversity of
endophytes in cultivated coffee plants. Interestingly, some of
these were insect pathogens and experiments are being con-
ducted to develop endophytes as biological control agents of
Plant pathogens — Plant pathogens differ from endophytes
in that they cause disease symptoms. Although some zoosporic
and zygosporic fungi are plant pathogens, most plant pathogens
are ascomycetes and basidiomycetes. A large number of asco-
mycetes and ca. 8000 species of basidiomycetes are plant patho-
gens. In addition to crop pathogens, it is important to remember
that many pathogens are numerous and important in natural
ecosystems ( Farr et al., 1989 ; Burdon, 1993 ). Nonpathogenic
432 American Journal of Botany [Vol. 98
Insects may be food for fungi, especially in low nitrogen en-
vironments. The mycelium of Pleurotus ostreatus , a favorite
edible species for humans, secretes toxic droplets that kill nem-
atodes. A study involving the mushroom-producing, ectomyc-
orrhizal basidiomycete, Laccaria bicolor , was designed to
determine the amount of predation by springtails on the fungal
mycelium. The study led to the surprise discovery that the fun-
gus was not insect food, but rather, it, and indirectly, the host
tree beneﬁ ted by obtaining substantial amounts of nitrogen
from the insects ( Klironomos and Hart, 2001 ). The predatory
habit has arisen independently on several occasions in at least
four phyla of fungi and oomycetes. Predaceous fungi such as
species of Arthrobotrys and Dactylella lure, then trap, snare, or
grip nematodes and other small invertebrate animals in soils
and in wood ( Barron, 1977 ).
Ø degaard (2000) revised global estimates of arthropods
downward from 30 million to 5 – 10 million. Not all insects and
arthropods are tightly associated with fungi, but even the re-
vised species estimates indicate that the numbers of insect-
associated fungi will be very high.
Soil fungi — Soil is a habitat of high fungal diversity ( W aksman ,
1922 ; Gilman, 1957 ; Kirk et al., 2004 ; Domsch et al., 2007 ).
Soil fungi and bacteria are important in biogeochemical cycles
( Vandenkoornhuyse et al., 2002 ), and the diversity of soil fungi
is highest near organic material such as roots and root exudates.
Per volume, large numbers of microscopic fungi occur in pure
soil, and these are largely asexual ascomycetes and some zygo-
mycetes, including animal-associated Zoopagales. Gams (2006)
estimated that 3150 species of soil fungi are known, and ca.
70% are available in culture. There presently is a high rate of new
species acquisition, and the group appears to be better known
than most ecologically deﬁ ned groups. Molecular studies, how-
ever, are predicted to increase the total number ( Bills et al.,
2004 ). In fact a study of soil communities in several forest types at
the Bonanza Creek Long Term Ecological Research site, Fair-
banks, Alaska, United States, revealed not only seasonal changes
in community composition but also in dominance of fungi over
bacteria. The data acquired by several molecular methods in-
cluding high-throughput sequencing greatly increased the total
number of fungal sequences in GenBank at the time ( Taylor
et al., 2010 ). Taylor and his colleagues found more than 200
operational taxonomic units in a 0.25 g soil sample with only
14% overlap in a sample taken a meter away. This study is not
directly comparable with the soil fungi reported by Gams (2006)
because Gams ’ ﬁ gures excluded fungi such as mycorrhizal
Another study of soil fungi based on environmental DNA
sequences showed an unexpected distribution of a group of
zoosporic fungi, Chytridiomycota. The chytrids, were found to
be the predominate group of fungi in nonvegetated, high-elevation
soils at sites in Nepal and in the United States in Colorado,
where more than 60% of the clone libraries obtained were from
chytrids. A phylogenetic analysis of the sequences compared
with those of a broad selection of known chytrids, indicated that
a diverse group of Chytridiomycota representing three orders
was present ( Freeman et al., 2009 ).
Most major fungal lineages are known from cultures and speci-
mens, but there have been a few surprises even in well-sampled
habitats such as soil. Soil clone group I (SCGI) represents a
major lineage of fungi that occurs in temperate and tropical soils
on three continents, but no one has ever seen or isolated any of
the species into culture ( Schadt et al., 2003 ; Porter et al., 2008 ).
These also usually require special methods for removal and
mounting, and few mycologists or entomologists have ever
seen members of the Laboulbeniomycetes or the fungal tricho-
mycetes, Asellariales and Harpellales ( Lichtwardt et al., 2001 ;
Cafaro, 2005 ). Laboulbeniomycetes are seta-sized, ectopara-
sitic ascomycetes of insects, mites, and millipedes ( Weir and
Blackwell, 2005 ). All 2000 known species have distinctive life
cycles with determinate thalli arising from two-celled as-
cospores. About 90% of the species have been found on adult
beetles (12 of 24 superfamilies) or on ﬂ ies. New arthropod hosts
at the level of family are still being discovered ( Weir and
Hammond, 1997a , b ; Rossi and Weir, 2007 ), and there is
an indication that there is some degree of host speciﬁ city ( De
Kesel, 1996 ). In the future, increased use of molecular meth-
ods will make it possible to determine the degree of species
level host speciﬁ city, but the information is not available now.
Septobasidiales, relatives of the basidiomycete rust fungi are
associated with scale insects, and their felty basidiomata
presumably protect the insects from parasitoid wasps. Many
microsporidians also are parasites of a broad group of host
Necrotrophic parasites of insects include some members of
Chytridiomycota, Blastocladiales ( Coelomomyces ), Ento-
mophthorales, and Tubeuﬁ aceae ( Podonectria ) ( Benjamin
et al., 2004 ). About 5000 members of three families of Hypoc-
reales are necrotrophic parasites of arthropods ( Spatafora et al.,
2007 , 2010). These species show an evolutionary pattern of
host shifting among plants, fungi, and insects in addition to dis-
playing a high level of host speciﬁ city.
Fungi also occur in ancient, obligate gardening associations
with bark and ambrosia beetles, attine ants, and Old World ter-
mites, and new species are still being discovered in these groups
( Benjamin et al., 2004 ; Little and Currie, 2007 ; Harrington
et al., 2008 ; Aanen et al., 2009 ). Many yeasts are associated
with insects, particularly insects that feed on nectar ( Lachance,
2006 ; Robert et al., 2006 ).
Other insects contain gut yeasts, a habitat where few have
looked for them. Isolations from the gut of mushroom-feeding
beetles yielded up to 200 new species of yeasts ( Suh et al.,
2004 , 2005 ; see also Lachance et al., 2010 ). Because only about
1500 ascomycete yeasts (Saccharomycotina) have been de-
scribed, the gut yeasts represent a dramatic increase in diversity
from a limited geographical range ( Boekhout, 2005 ; C. Kurtzman,
USDA-ARS, personal communication, July 2010). In fact, the
estimated total number of yeast species worldwide could be in-
creased by as much as 50% by simply recollecting in previously
collected sites from the study ( Suh et al., 2005 ). As Lachance
(2006) pointed out, based on predictions of yeast numbers
using data from species in slime ﬂ uxes and in associations with
ﬂ ower-visiting insects, it is necessary to obtain more informa-
tion on speciﬁ city and geographical ranges before better esti-
mates can be made. Although not all insects harbor large
numbers of yeasts in their guts, those with restricted diets in all
life history stages such as mushrooms or wood are often associ-
ated with yeasts. Host insects may acquire digestive enzymes or
vitamins from the yeasts. This contention is supported by the
fact that unrelated insects feeding on mushrooms (e.g., beetles
in different lineages, lepidopteran larvae) all have gut yeasts
with similar assimilative capabilities and vitamin production.
The high rate of discovery of yeasts in under-collected habitats
and localities suggests that far more taxa await discovery ( Suh
et al., 2005 ), and the gut habitat has been considered a yeast
diversity hotspot ( Boekhout, 2005 ).
March 2011] Blackwell — Fungal numbers
1991 ), and Hyde et al. (1998) estimated that more than 1500
species of marine fungi occur in a broad array of taxonomic
groups. Many of these fungi are distinct from freshwater aquatic
species, and they may be saprobic on aquatic plant substrates.
Some species have characters such as sticky spore appendages,
indicators of specialization for the marine habitat ( Kohlmeyer
et al., 2000 ).
It is interesting that few fungi from early-diverging lineages
have been reported from marine environments, perhaps in part
because mycologists studying these groups sampled more often
from fresh water habitats. More recently, an investigation of
deep-sea hydrothermal ecosystems revealed not only novel spe-
cies of ascomycetes and basidiomycetes, but also what may be
a previously unknown lineage of chytrids ( Le Calvez et al.,
Most marine fungi are ascomycetes and basidiomycetes, and
these include ascomycete and basidiomycete yeasts ( Nagahama,
2006 ). Some of the yeasts degrade hydrocarbon compounds
present in natural underwater seeps and spills ( Davies and
Westlake, 1979 ). Certain ascomycetes are specialists on calcar-
eous substrates including mollusk shells and cnidarian reefs.
Even a few mushroom-forming basidiomycetes are restricted to
marine waters ( Binder et al., 2006 ). Some fungi use other
marine invertebrates as hosts ( Kim and Harvell, 2004 ), includ-
ing antibiotic producers that live in sponges ( Bhadury et al.,
2006 ; Pivkin et al., 2006 ; Wang et al., 2008 ). A wide variety of
fungi considered to be terrestrial also are found in marine envi-
ronments. Basidiomycete (i.e., Lacazia loboi ) and ascomycete
yeasts, and other fungi including Basidiobolus ranarum , may
occur in marine waters where they infect porpoises and other
vertebrates ( Kurtzman and Fell, 1998 ; Murdoch et al., 2008 ;
Morris et al., 2010 ).
Fungal species — Currently, molecular methods provide
large numbers of characters for use in phylogenetic species dis-
crimination (e.g., Kohn, 2005 ; Giraud et al., 2008 ). In the past,
biologists relied primarily on phenotype for species delimita-
tion, and most of the formally described species known today
were based on morphology. In addition, mating tests have been
used to distinguish so-called biological species, especially
among heterothallic basidiomycetes ( Anderson and Ullrich,
1979 ; Petersen, 1995 ). The ability to mate, however, may be an
ancestral character. For example, Turner et al. (2010) found
evidence that fungi have evolved strong barriers to mating when
they have sympatric rather than allopatric distributions. Distant
populations would not have had strong selective pressure
against hybridization, thereby avoiding production of progeny
less ﬁ t than conspeciﬁ c progeny (e.g., Garbelotto et al., 2007 ;
Stireman et al., 2010 ). This phenomenon, known as reinforce-
ment, helps to explain how fungi from different continents can
mate in the laboratory but never in nature and is an argument in
favor of recognizing species by phylogenetics. A number of re-
searchers have recognized species using “ phylogenetic species
recognition ” criteria ( Taylor et al., 2000 ). The operational phy-
logenetic method is based on a “ concordance of multiple gene
genealogies, ” and in addition to discriminating species, the
method indicates whether fungal populations actually exchange
genes in nature ( Taylor et al., 2000 ; Fisher et al., 2002 ; Dettman
et al., 2006 ; Jacobson et al., 2006 ).
The use of phylogenetic species criteria results in recognition
of more species than those delimited by morphological charac-
ters. For example, work on Neurospora species resulted in the
discovery of 15 species within ﬁ ve previously recognized species
The phylogenetic position of this lineage, perhaps a new phy-
lum, appeared as a sister group to the clade of Pezizomycotina –
Saccharomycotina ( Porter et al., 2008 ). Other unexpected
higher taxonomic level fungal clades have been detected from
environmental DNA sequences ( Vandenkoornhuyse et al.,
2002 ; Jumpponen and Johnson, 2005 ; Porter et al., 2008 ). An-
other lineage detected by environmental sequences was sub-
jected to ﬂ uorescent in situ hybridization (FISH). The outline of
a single-celled, ﬂ agellated organism was detected ( Jones and
Richards, 2009 ), but apparently none of these fungi has been
cultured either. Higher-level bacterial taxa have been discov-
ered by environmental sampling, but this is a far less common
occurrence for fungi ( Porter et al., 2008 ).
Fungi form crusts that stabilize desert soils. Crusts usually
are made up of darkly pigmented ascomycetes, lichens, and
nitrogen-ﬁ xing cyanobacteria ( States and Christensen, 2001 ).
Rock-inhabiting fungi occur in the surface and subsurface lay-
ers of desert rocks. These darkly pigmented ascomycetes are
members of the classes Dothideomycetes and Arthoniomycetes,
but basidiomycetes and bacteria may occur in the associations
( Kuhlman et al., 2006 ; Ruibal et al., 2009 ). Easily cultured
asexual ascomycetes and other fungi also occur in desert soils,
and these include an unusual zygomycete, Lobosporangium
transversale ( Ranzoni, 1968 ), known only from three isolations
including Sonoran Desert soil. Yeasts are well known from
American deserts in association with cacti and ﬂ ies where they
detoxify plant metabolites ( Starmer et al., 2006 ).
Freshwater fungi — Certain fungi are adapted for life in fresh
water. More than 3000 species of ascomycetes are specialized
for a saprobic life style in freshwater habitats where they have
enhanced growth and sporulation ( Shearer et al., 2007 ; Kirk
et al., 2008 ; Shearer and Raja, 2010 ). The asci are evanescent,
and ascospores have appendages and sticky spore sheaths, that
anchor the spores to potential substrates in the aquatic environ-
ment. Conidia have several dispersal strategies, and these
are designated as Ingoldian ( Fig. 2 ) and aero-aquatic ( Fig. 3 )
conidia. Ingoldian conidia are sigmoidal, branched, or tetraradi-
ate and attach to plants and other material in the water. The
conidia ﬂ oat on foam that accumulates at the banks of streams,
especially during heavy runoff, and when the bubbles burst, the
spores may be dispersed for great distances from the water and
into trees, where they can be isolated from water-ﬁ lled tree
holes ( Bandoni, 1981 ; Descals and Moralejo, 2001 ; G ö ncz ö l
and R é vay, 2003 ). Aero-aquatic fungi have multicellular, often
tightly helical conidia with air spaces to make them buoyant on
the surface of slower-moving waters ( Fisher, 1977 ).
Other, less obviously modiﬁ ed fungi are present in water,
and some of these are active in degrading leaves in streams
after the heavy autumn leaf fall. A few specialized freshwater
basidiomycetes also are known, and several have branched
conidia similar to those of the Ingoldian ascomycetes. Flagel-
lated fungi occur in aquatic habitats, including Chytridiomy-
cota, Blastocladiomycota, and Monoblepharomycota ( James
et al., 2006 ). Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis , the recently
described amphibian killer, is an aquatic chytrid ( Longcore
et al., 1999 ). Members of Neocallimastigomycota also live in a
specialized largely aquatic environment, the gut of vertebrate
herbivores, where they are essential for digestion of cellulosic
Marine fungi — Marine waters provide a habitat for certain
specialized fungi ( Kohlmeyer and Volkmann-Kohlmeyer,
434 American Journal of Botany [Vol. 98
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such examples among other groups of fungi, and eventually
these may be a signiﬁ cant source of new species discovery in
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overlap ( Taylor et al., 2010 ).
A better estimate of fungal numbers also can be speeded by
enlisting more biologists to accomplish the goal. When am-
phibian populations ﬁ rst were observed to be dwindling and
some species were determined to have disappeared almost 20 yr
earlier, a number of causes, all nonfungal, were suggested as
the explanation. The revelation that a chytrid was involved
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identify the novel ﬂ agellated fungus, Batrachochytrium dend-
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in the discovery of many new chytrid species and the descrip-
tion of ﬁ ve new orders between 2008 and 2010. The rise of
AIDS and the accompanying large number of fungal infections
brought about a similar interest in medical mycology several
In addition to any sudden inﬂ ux of biologists to obtain better
estimates of fungal numbers, a new approach clearly is needed.
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fungal diversity being discovered.
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plan and produce a phylogenetic classiﬁ cation, the develop-
ment of freely accessible databases, and the use of new tools to
survey fungi in ecological studies has prepared the mycological
community to accomplish a number of new goals, including the
discovery of millions of fungi.
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