A project undertaken at The Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, and supervised by Dr Naveed Davoodian.
Mesophelliaceae is a fungal family in the Basidiomycota (the division of fungi that contains most of the mushroom-forming species) that is unique to Australia. The fruiting bodies of these fungi are not mushrooms, but rather underground truffle-like structures, though they are not true truffles (which occur in the Ascomycota, a different division of fungi). All Mesophelliaceae taxa associate mutualistically with Eucalyptus species and other related plants, in relationships called mycorrhizal associations, in which water and mineral nutrient uptake is enhanced by the fungus in exchange for sugars from the plant partner.
Species of Mesophelliaceae are native to Australia and some neighbouring islands, and also occur outside of this native range in association with Australian plants introduced worldwide, for example Eucalyptus plantations. Many Mesophelliaceae species are food sources for threatened native Australian mammals, and sometimes, depending on environmental conditions, some mammals are dependent on Mesophelliaceae as their primary food source.
At present, the precise relationship between many of the genera and species within Mesophelliaceae is unknown. The proposed project entails genome sequencing and evolutionary analysis to help better infer relationships within this unique, ecologically important Australian fungal family. DNA barcodes will be generated, which will assist in the identification of these species from environmental DNA samples. This project will contribute to efforts toward fully uncovering the Mesophelliaceae tree of life, and the fungal tree of life more broadly.
Confidently resolving the relationships within Mesophelliaceae will provide insights into the evolution of key morphological features, especially traits associated with the consumption of these fungi as food by Australian marsupials and other mammals. For example, many species of Mesophelliaceae have sterile tissue embedded within a powdery spore mass; in these cases some mammals will eat the sterile tissue and incidentally disperse the spores via their fur or faeces. These and other unusual morphological features will be interpreted in the context of Australia’s geologic and biogeographic history, providing insights into the ecology and evolution of these fungi alongside their animal and plant partners.