ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Compared to plants and animals, fungi don't get a lot of attention. A group of scientists wants to change that with a report that they describe as the first ever major assessment of the world's fungi. We're talking about everything from microscopic yeast to mold, edible mushrooms and even the largest living thing on earth - a fungus in Oregon that stretches for miles. Tom Prescott is a researcher at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew outside of London, and he worked on this new report called "State Of The World's Fungi." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
TOM PRESCOTT: Thank you very much for having me.
SHAPIRO: To start with what fungi actually are, I was surprised to read they're more closely related to animals than plants.
PRESCOTT: That's certainly true. There are certain features that are typical of fungi, so, for example, the ability to digest food outside of their bodies and then absorb the nutrients back in. You're really right to point out that they are more similar to animals. And certainly, fungi are more similar to humans - they're more related to us than they are to plants.
SHAPIRO: Why is this report necessary?
PRESCOTT: Fungi are a kind of mysterious, hidden biological kingdom. They kind of are always in the shadows. And by chance at Kew Gardens in London, we have the biggest collection of fungi in the world. So we've got I think about 1.25 million fungal specimens.
SHAPIRO: You write that more than 90 percent of the fungi in the world are still unknown to science. How is that possible?
PRESCOTT: Well, not all fungi are visible to the naked eye. Your listeners could be walking through the woods and, without knowing it, walking past a new species of fungi.
SHAPIRO: Plants and animals are indisputably more charismatic, sexier than a typical fungus. If I asked you to just make an elevator pitch for why fungus should get a little more attention, a little more love from the average person, what would you say?
PRESCOTT: OK. Fungi are, like, super important in a whole range of different areas. They're not only tasty to eat, but they are useful for things like washing powders. Fungi have been absolutely instrumental in the world of medicine - the obvious one is penicillin. In the future, it looks like we're going to have actual plastic replacements made out of fungi. There's just a whole range of things that can be done with them. They're so useful to us.
SHAPIRO: I feel compelled to point out that fungi can also kill people and destroy entire crops.
PRESCOTT: That's certainly true. So fungi are certainly capable of being pathogenic. That's something that can be a problem obviously for humans. Also increasingly we are seeing new fungal plant pathogens emerging. It appears that fungi can switch potentially from being innocuous to being kind of bad.
SHAPIRO: Do you have a favorite fungus?
PRESCOTT: Do you know what? I do, but you're going to say it's really boring. My favorite one is just simply the budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae because it makes beer. I've got a bottle of lager in my hand right now. Who could disagree with something that makes something as good as beer, right?
SHAPIRO: Tom Prescott, thank you so much for speaking with us today.
PRESCOTT: Thank you very much.
SHAPIRO: He is with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. He joined us to talk about a report released by the gardens today called "State Of The World's Fungi." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.