Mycology is the study of fungi. The fungi are one of the kingdoms of the natural world. Fungi include macrofungi such as mushrooms, corals, brackets, puffballs and disc fungi and also numerous microfungi such as rust fungi, mildews and moulds. A few fungal-like organisms (like slime moulds) occur in other kingdoms. The fungi differ from other organisms because their nutrition is heterotrophic (non-photosynthetic), they have chitin in their cell walls and they mostly reproduce by spores.

Fungi play pivotal roles in ecosystems as decomposers, parasites and partners in mutualisms such as ectomycorrhizas and lichens, and provide food for mammals and invertebrates.

Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne is a centre for research on the taxonomy, systematics, conservation and ecology of Australian macrofungi. The National Herbarium of Victoria (MEL) holds a significant collection of dried specimens of Australian fungi.

Systematics and taxonomy of fungi

Fungal research at Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne focuses on the macrofungi, which are the fungi with readily visible fruit-bodies such as mushrooms and truffles. In the last decade about 50 new species of fungi have been described by the Gardens' mycologists, in genera such as Amarrendia, Asterophora, Cortinarius, Cribbea, Gymnomyces, Hypocreopsis and Russula. Current groups of particular interest are the families Boletaceae, Cortinariaceae, Hydnangiaceae and Russulaceae, and the genera Banksiamyces and Calostoma.

The macro- and micro-morphology of fruit-bodies, including features such as the spore print colour and spore ornamentation, are utilised for delimiting species. However, the overall appearance of the fruit-body can give a quite misleading indication of evolutionary relationships, especially for truffle-like fungi. By integrating molecular and morphological data, our studies have demonstrated surprising links between truffle-like and agaricoid (mushroom) forms. One such relationship is between the truffle-like Cribbea and the agaricoid Oudemansiella and Xerula. In some cases, the truffle-like species are best placed within established agaric genera, which has led to the sinking of Macowanites into Russula.

Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne maintains the national list of Australian fungi, which currently covers more than 3,000 macrofungi in the Basidiomycota and Myxomycota.

Ecology and conservation of fungi

Fungi are particularly important in ecosystems due to their interactions with other organisms. At RBG Melbourne we study the fungal community, especially in relation to fire and variation across vegetation communities. We also study mycorrhizal fungi from endangered orchids, the impact of invasive fungi on ectomycorrhizas of Nothofagus, interactions between gall midges and fungi and mycophagy (fungus consumption) by mammals. In all these studies, correct identification of the fungus is important. Our taxonomic and systematic studies provide a solid foundation for understanding the roles of fungi in ecosystems.

Very few Australian fungi are formally listed on national or state conservation schedules. Mycologists at Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne contribute to efforts to improve the conservation status of fungi, both through policy initiatives such as A conservation overview of Australian non-marine lichens, bryophytes, algae and fungi and participation in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Fungi Specialist Group (for which the Gardens hosts a website). We also provide the taxonomic underpinning to conservation efforts, such as through formal description of Hypocreopsis amplectens, the only fungus currently listed under the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act.

Fungimap is an Australia-wide non-government organisation devoted to improving knowledge and conservation of Australia macrofungi. Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne has hosted the office of Fungimap since its inception in 1995.