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Some 700 scientists from 58 countries converged on Cairns to attend the 8th International Mycological Congress this August. Each day of the conference carried a plenary address, closely packed lectures in contiguous-themed symposia and numerous poster displays. The symposia ranged through topics and techniques, from phylogenetics and taxonomy through genomics, proteomics and transcriptomics, from cell imagery to industrial mycology, biocontrol, pathology and phylogeography.
Whilst we were both tempted to stay with familiar topics much was to be learned by attending sessions covering research less well known to us. For example, the benign Chytridiomycetes became more sinister with description of deadly chytridiomycoses in amphibians, whilst the fascinating world of the Stramenopiles was opened up by hearing of their importance to disease in the marine environment and in their ability to produce useful polyunsaturated fatty acids. We highlight two particularly thought provoking plenary sessions. John Taylor (University of California at Berkeley, USA) considered “Species of Fungi; their recognition, maintenance and utility” by asking whether “species” are a human concept fitted to a biological continuum? First, the presence of numerous ‘cryptic species’ within fungi was described, being taxa that share morphological features but are phylogenetically distinct. These often exhibit discrete geographical ranges, effectively refuting the suggestion of Bland Finley that any species with propagules <1mm size would have a global distribution. Next, research involving closely related ‘species’ of Neurospora was presented, in which it was shown that whilst it was possible to intercross species in the laboratory, that hybrids are not found in nature as a result of the development of barriers that develop in sympatry. It was suggested that species formation may be a common event, but that species persistence is rare as a result of extinction or merger with diverged sister species. Current work aims to identify QTLs linked to fertility.
The second slick performance came from James Galagan (Broad Institute, USA) who considered the field of “Comparative Fungal Genomics”. This talk centred upon the themes of intron evolution and splicing, genome evolution and translational control. Fungal introns are considered “simple”, for they are relatively short but as splicing occurs via a common eukaryotic mechanism they are ideal models for higher eukaryotes. A comparison of the gain and loss of introns in 2 euascomycete genomes revealed that loss dominates and, curiously, with greatest spatial loss of introns occurring mid gene. But how and why are introns present? Galagan considered the need for introns in nuclear export, translation, surveillance for premature stops via nonsense-mediated decay and finally alternative splicing. Next, a brief review was made of lessons learnt from genome sequencing of species from the genus Aspergillus. Notable were the observations that even within a single fungal genus, sequence divergence was equivalent to that between mammals and fish, and that breeding systems could be correlated nicely with the evolution of mating-type (MAT) genes. Finally, the role of short, upstream ORFs in regulating gene expression and overcoming stochastic noise was explored.
31 scientists from UK presented talks in the plenary or concurrent sessions. Of particular relevance to plant pathology was that of Nicholas Talbot (University of Exeter, UK) reviewing functional genomics of pathogenicity in Magnaporthe grisea. Nick described a novel ATPase that was linked to secretion processes and was specifically required for host infection. Other outstanding talks on the pathology theme were those by Bruce McDonald (ETH, Zurich) on the genetic structure of fungal plant pathogens on wild versus cultivated host populations at host centre of origin, and Nancy Keller (University of Wisconsin, USA) who suggested the use of inverted transgenes of fungal toxins as a form of RNAi therapy for control of plant diseases.
We acknowledge with thanks funding which enabled us to attend this Antipodean meeting – from BMS, BSPP, Lockey Bequest and Somerville College for Sarah Gurr and from BMS, BSPP and The Royal Society for Paul Dyer.
Sarah Gurr (University of Oxford) and Paul Dyer (University of Nottingham)