Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Australia

Australian fungi

Brett Summerell & Edward Liew, Plant Pathologists

All plants get diseases and most of them are caused by fungi. The worst groups are Fusarium, Ganoderma and Armillaria. From our research at the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust we have discovered a number of fungi new to science, and new diseases affecting Australian plants - not only in botanic gardens but also in our forests. We think only about 15% of the fungi in Australia are known, and only a fraction have been studied in detail. By understanding which fungi cause diseases, and by researching their biology, we can predict how they can best be controlled.

Did you know?

  • Most fungi are microscopic.
  • Fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants and are in their own kingdom.
  • Fungi are used in the production of bread, beer, wine, soy sauce and some cheeses.
  • Fungi are most important for decay and recycling of plant matter.
  • The worst plant diseases, like root rot and butt rot, are caused by microscopic fungi in the soil.
  • Many devastating tree diseases aren’t present in Australia, so we have strict quarantine laws to prevent their entry.
  • Using ‘friendly’ fungi to fight disease-causing fungi can reduce the need for chemical treatments.

Australian microfungi

The fungal kingdom is thought to contain the most number of species after the insects and is probably the least understood of all the organisms on the planet. Most of us are aware of the mushrooms and toadstools that we see popping up in the garden but very few are aware of the huge array of microscopic fungi that exist.

These fungi are by far the most numerous with estimates of hundreds of thousands of species existing. However scientists probably only know around 10% of these species and the percentage even lower in Australia. These fungi play very important roles in the functioning of ecosystems; some are plant and animal pathogens, others form intimate symbiotic relationships with plants but the majority are saprophytes. These are organisms that breakdown organic matter so that the nutrients then eventually become available to plants. As a consequence they are responsible for maintaining healthy soils and ensuring the viability of all sorts of ecosystems.

At the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust our scientists have a program to collect, identify and describe many of these species. We have been examining those fungi associated with leaf-spots on plants in the Proteaceae (plants like the waratah, banksia and grevillea) and researching the important plant pathogenic genus Fusarium. We use a range of techniques including microscopy and molecular fingerprinting to identify new species.

This research has resulted in the description of a number of species new to science and has had implications for agriculture, horticulture as well as the protection of our native ecosystems. A knowledge of the fungi present in Australia is also essential for quarantine purposes.

Brett Summerell & Ed Liew