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#8: Understanding our plants and fungi with Dr Ilia Leitch

#8: Understanding our plants and fungi with Dr Ilia Leitch

How much of the world’s plants and fungi do we understand? Scratch that - how much of the world’s plants and fungi have we even discovered? And with that understanding, what is changing right now?

In this episode our special guest Dr Ilia Leitch of the world-renowned Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew helps us to explore and begin to understand the fascinating scientific frontiers and discovery underway in the natural world.

Kew - working with 210 contributors in 97 institutions across 42 countries - recently released its ‘State of the World's Plants and Fungi 2020’ report, and my conversation with Dr Leitch calls on some of the broad and fascinating findings in this globally important piece of work.

Listening to Dr Ilia you will find that we are living in a paradox.

While new discoveries are happening every day, with 1,942 species of plants and 1,886 species of fungi scientifically named for the first time in 2019, new insights and everyday applications being uncovered, and only a tiny fraction of the world’s fungi even identified, we are also facing awful, irrecoverable loss, with two in five of plant species threatened with extinction, a world where by the time a new species has been described and named it is often already facing extinction.

Despite that, Dr Leitch is optimistic and you will hear a hope grounded in pragmatism and science in her perspectives as we bounce from discovery and taxonomy to genomics (some really interesting parallels with software here for me), get a sense of the amazing ‘hidden kingdom of fungi’ and gain a better appreciation for the opportunities and challenges of international collaboration in science.

We can't save things if we don't know what's there. So we have to know what's there. And that's why what we do is important.

There’s also a nice link between ‘citizen science’ and some of the discussion with Eliot Higgins on crowdsourcing intelligence in Episode 4.

I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did and get a better sense of our scientific understanding of plants, fungi and how they are affected by and adapting to this changing world. It really, really matters.


Credits & Thanks

Automated transcript

Will McInnes 0:46

So I'm really privileged to have you here with us today. Dr. Elliot Leach. And you are assistant head of comparative plant and fungal biology and a senior research leader at Royal Botanic Gardens. Kew. Is that correct?

Ilia Leitch 1:29

It is quite a mouthful. No, it is correct. It is quite a mouthful. I just think of myself as a very fortunate scientist to be working at Kew. So that's what you know, I have access to the wonderful collections at Kew that enable me to do really exciting well work that I think is exciting. And hopefully important. In the long run,

Will McInnes 1:53

when I was a little boy growing up in London, we went on a couple of school trips to to Kew, some people may not have been that lucky. So for the listener that hasn't come across. Kew Could you just tell us a little bit about either the history the purpose, like where, what what the project and the organisation and institution does today.

Ilia Leitch 2:16

Um, well, it's a has a very long history goes back 200 and more than 260 years. So as founded in 1759, if I'm correct, and really is a started off as, as a royal garden with the best sort of director of being interested in plants and plant diversity, and being able to name and collect things and by understand how they're used. And over the years, I guess Kew has had a long history of continue to collect lots of samples, and a great expertise in being able to correctly name them. So we have accused of amazing collections in the world of some of the largest collections in the world of plant herbarium specimens which reflect which are squashed plants effectively between paper but they provide an essential reference for being able to describe a plant species, a new plant species, as its described, will be made into a herbarium specimen. And the description of of all the attributes and characters, which describe that species and make it distinct from everything else will be captured in that specimen. So that's what in fact, that's what we call the type specimen it Kew because that's the actual individual plant that was used to name a species, we have lots of type specimens, but we have over over seven and a half million of these specimens in one of the buildings at Kew. And then we also have the equivalent for funghi, with over 1.2 5 million specimens of different funghi. All stored in different boxes, and again, their vital source of information for being able to correctly name things and of course, without a name, you are lost, because yes, the essential fundamental ability to communicate with people and to do to discuss things on an equal term. So I guess that those are two of our great collections that Kew and we have now around 300 scientists, thank you for working using those collections, as well as collaborating widely with partnerships across the world, doing biodiversity focused research. I mean, of course, I should also mention we have a public garden, which is the side that most of the people who come to Kew is what they will see. But and that's a wonderful sight as well in the sort of west of London where, you know, I love going out there when I'm not in the lab. It's a wonderful place. And but that's the science which really underpins it's more than a public more than just a pretty garden. It's it's a garden which uses all the plants first Science Research and for understanding, documenting and sort of utilising all the information that we have about plants and funding. Incredible.

Will McInnes 5:11

It brought so much to life, there's the pretty garden. But then there's this formidable body of 300 scientists, you know, and then these these immeasurably unique and important resources that you're leveraging. So that the, the, the archive, effectively the the data set. And so that's really, really useful and interesting. And I

Ilia Leitch 5:36

just had one thing is what's really exciting, particularly in a way is the fact that these collections, many of which are hundreds of you know, over 100 or 200 years old, were originally collected just as dried specimens. But now with the advances in DNA sequencing techniques, we're able to actually extract DNA from these samples. So we can use that for helping advance our understanding of plants and how they're related to each other, and funghi. And so we're using these collections that are being repurposed for new things that we never that when they were originally collected, nobody had any idea that they would be useful for that sort of research because they didn't know about DNA. But now you can get it out that we can get chemicals out of them, we can explore them for new potential drugs. Now, it's a whole new, so they're not dead and dried sort of collections sort of stuck in a dusty cupboard. They are, they are a vital resource for our research. So I just wanted to add that.

Will McInnes 6:34

No, that's wonderful. That's absolutely wonderful. And as a tangent, there's a guy that I follow on Twitter called Seamus blackly, who recently made a loaf of bread from yeast that he harvested from an Egyptian specimen a piece of terracotta or clay or something from from the time and I love that idea. It's like Jurassic Park, isn't it? It's the idea that you can use the things that seem like they're in spaces, the amber and the mosquito in it still contain the source code to so much interesting science. Thank you for bringing that to life for us. And so what's, how did you end up doing this kind of work earlier? People are always interested in the stories that our guests, you know, how we went these parts in life? Have you always been enthusiastic about the natural world? Like what what was the path?

Ilia Leitch 7:30

I've been Yes, I've always, I've always loved the natural world, and the complexity and diversity and the surprises that you never know what you're going to find. I love that sort of unknown and being able to find out for the first time something that nobody else in the world knows, and yet it contribute a vital piece of the puzzle to understanding things that are being studied. So I guess as always, I've always been curious about that. And yes, I've always liked the natural world. And I've particularly like plants. So my work is focused mainly on plants. But I like the fact that I can cue I can work on a whole diversity of plants, you know, we have around 350,000 different species of vascular plants. So those are things like the ferns, gymnosperm, sets, the conifers and cycads. And the flowering plants, the angiosperms, and we have these great collections that we can use. And so whereas many research institutes and universities, for example, undertake plant research, they tend to be focused on models species, as well as crop plants, obviously, because they are vital for our own food security and for our future. But there's so much more diversity out there. And it's that, you know, it's just that what we know from our models, species and our crops, is just the tip of the iceberg for what evolution has generated upon which we can look at and understand and provide new things, you know, that you don't get by these very detailed, deep insights that you get from studying models and crops. But you don't get the breadth of understanding. And really, I guess, as we move into increasing these sort of all these global challenges that we're facing, we need to draw more widely on the diversity that's out there rather than because it well, just because it may bring us new solutions, which are not encompassed by the study, the deep study of model species, not to say they're not important is deep studies, but it's the it's the sort of counter studies of the diversity, which is what I really enjoy.

Will McInnes 9:39

I definitely hear that and picking through the report that we'll talk about in a minute. I was really excited about the examples in the report that you've recently published, which just brought to life that range of possibility and that sense of the unexplored and of new New Frontiers, if I understand correctly, your your personal, your kind of your research is in genomics specifically or like, and tell us a bit about that.

Ilia Leitch 10:14

Um, well, I guess my own particular interest is in an area of genomics, which is focused at the whole genome level, if you think of our, in each of our cells, we have the nucleus, which contains the DNA. And that's the total DNA is what we call the genome. And there's a lot of work that goes on in sequencing, you know, there's been huge advances in sequencing the DNA and understanding how it's expressed and regulated. But what I'm interested in is the total package of DNA, and how that impacts the biology, the ecology and the evolution of the organism. And particularly, I'm interested in what we call genome size, because genome size refers to the total amount of DNA. So you know, in each of our genomes, in each of ourselves, we have a genome, which is, it's made up of about 3000 million or three Giga bases of the letters of the DNA code. So that's what our genome consists of, and in that information necessary for us to find individuals. But that genome size, which is three Giga bases, or 3000 million letters, is really pretty average compared with the diversity of genome sizes that are encountered in plants. So there are some plants which contain 50 times as much DNA in each cell as we do, and some which contain 50, less 50 times less so tiny, little genomes. So you've got this huge diversity of genome sizes. And that variation, does have an impact on how influencing how and where a plant is able to grow and compete, and therefore, how it might be able to respond to in you know, climate change, or habitat destruction, or pollution, for example, all these factors. And that in that size, although it doesn't say anything about the actual sequence inside it, is has this impact. So it's, I would call it that my research is focused on sort of the whole genome level diversity. And I do look at sequence information as well, because that's vital to understand why some things are so big or so small. But anyway, so that's, that's my own particular area.

Will McInnes 12:35

Love it, I suppose I work in, in software, what I was thinking when you were talking about the so there was there's there are there are plants or species that have a very small genomic package or a very small,

Ilia Leitch 12:51

logical genome genome,

Will McInnes 12:55

with small genome, right. So they they have a small genome. And then there are others that have a vast, you know, much more complex or larger genome. Yeah. But that doesn't necessarily manifest in, in the thing that we see in the actual world, it doesn't necessarily mean it's a more complicated plant or tree. No, no, no wonder about the wonder about code. Because, you know, code, there's very efficient code that, you know, people often talk about attenex programmer who, who will just find a very elegant and efficient way to get the job done. And then there's also this idea of technical debt, which is code that was used in the past and has been kind of has built up like, you know, silt over time. And it's still there. And so I wonder, Is it is it either of those or another or something completely different?

Ilia Leitch 13:47

It's more like your second example of technical debt? Is that what you said?

Will McInnes 13:53

That's right, yeah.

Ilia Leitch 13:54

Oh, going back to our own genome, even if we just take that, which is a pretty moderate genome in size. It only about two or 3% of that is actually containing the code for proteins, which is what underpins how we function. So it's a very small proportion, which has that information or the genes as we, you know, people talk about genes, only two to 3% of our DNA codes for genes. And the rest of it, well, some of it is certainly playing a role in influencing which genes are switched on or switched off in different cells, which explains why we're, you know why we're differentiated into hands and feet and skin and whatever, because otherwise we'd all be identical if all the DNA was being expressed in the same way. So some of its doing that, but a lot of the DNA even in our own genome is made up of repetitive DNA sequences. So the same DNA sequence repeated hundreds of thousands of times and these Come often from bits of DNA, which some people have called selfish DNA, they have the ability to make copies of themselves and jump around the genome and insert themselves into other places. So they're sometimes called jumping genes. And people have not really often people have called these types of DNA junk DNA is another term that people may be familiar with, because they don't, we don't necessarily understand what they're doing. And so the genome is full of this sort of DNA that we don't quite know what it's doing. That may be just our own ignorance. Of course, it doesn't mean say it doesn't isn't functional, but it is DNA. That is it's not clearly having a function, although sometimes, interestingly, these dumping genes get what people call domesticated. So they may jump into a useful bits of the, you know, functional bit of protein coding gene, for example, and change the way that is expressed. And that may become useful, because that may enable provides a new sort of novelty in the phenotype of the plant, what it looks like, or animal, whatever, which can selection can then act on. And that can lead to new, you know, something which is better adapted to the environment it's living in. There are many examples of that in plants and animals, and it can affect you know, how the organism is able to survive and compete. So it is the genome of bits of DNA that nobody quite knows what they're doing on. But we don't probably most of I don't know whether it's functional or not. But I think some of it certainly is, I would say, one stance, certainly in the flowering plants, most species are characterised by small genomes. And it suggests that there is a sort of, although there are some which get these enormous obese genomes, you might call them genome sort of genomic obesity, they, they are much rarer than the more common small genomes, suggesting that there is selection against perhaps, things getting really big. So it and in fact, well, I could go on. But we have recently just produced a paper about that how actually, genome size itself determines that the dynamics of these repeat sequences, and with these bigger genomes, their genome, evolution appears to be sort of more sluggish than the sort of more nimble, very dynamic genomes, which is what the small genome so there is something it's also in terms of how a genome is operating, depending on its size, and its ability to change and adapt.

Unknown Speaker 17:43


Will McInnes 17:44

I'm really interested in let's, let's definitely pick up on that. And one of the things on the topic of discovery that I picked out from the report that you've just released, was this sense of of continued discovery. So if I if I read from some of the notes, a small selection of the species name for the first time in 2019, naming valaria Desert, desert ecola was far from straightforward first collected in Angola 160 years ago, it was not encountered again by a botanist until 2009. That is incredible. And took another decade to publish the scientific name and description. This really interests me the next one, the snowdrop galantis, personas from Northwest Turkey, was identified as a new species after a Ukrainian researcher spotted it in a holiday photo. And I love that idea that the discovery sort of happened because someone noticed something they didn't recognise. And then thirdly, Gladiolus Mary AI, is known to, is only known to grow on two mountains in Guinea, the Kew scientist who encountered it in the wild, named after his wife, which is lovely, but just the idea of the uniqueness of this of this species, only two mountains in the world. So tell us a bit about this report. And what else you guys have discovered or on Earth as a community?

Ilia Leitch 19:06

Um, well, the report is, is one, this is a fourth in a series of reports that we've done on the state of the world's plants. We did two on the state of the world's plants, and then we did one on the state of the world's funghi. And then we did another one on this year, as you're referring to on the stage was plants and funghi. And really, it's a synthesis of what is our understanding and knowledge of plants and funghi at the moment, and the threats that are being faced and providing essential sort of baseline data from which people can use to try to find solutions. You know, some of the stories protecting this report are alarming. You know, the threat status, now considered that two in five of all plant species are at risk of extinction. Yes. Which is doubled or Well, it used to be one in five, three ago when we carried out the similar sort of analyses based on the data then so things are getting worse. But as you also see, we're discovering new spaces. Not at the rate at which they're being lost, but we are discovering new spaces. So there's lots out there, people might think that everything in the world has been is known about discovered, but that's just not the case that there's, there are things you never know what you're going to uncover, and, but have it I guess that's where having this sort of taxonomic expertise is, is so vital, because you may come across that gladiola species on a rock. And if you didn't know what you were looking at, you might think it looks like a bit like the Gladiolus side that I know well. But if you don't know what characters to actually look at, so that's where you need that taxonomic expertise, and who knows what that new species might contain, it may contain new chemicals, which have new potential medical, low value, or maybe new potential insecticide, you know, a new chemical for new insecticide and actually a ste one, it could have all sorts of things. So that's why being able to document and see what species are there and recognise the differences. So you know, you've got something new to explore. It's so important.

Will McInnes 21:15

Absolutely. And so what I'm hearing and what I was reading was, was both a story of emergence and a story of of loss is it's once kind of hopeful and at once desperate. So I'd love to I'd love to dig into both of those those themes on the on the Let's start with the last humans, I think often do like to begin with, our biases often take us towards the negative. So let's go there. And that's dramatically awful that we've gone from one in five species at risk of extinction to two in five in three years. That is unbelievably awful to hear. And, and what really made me feel not quite tearful. But getting there was this phrase in the report, often by the time any species has been described and named, it is facing extinction. Like what what a desperate state of affairs? Yeah, what what is it like being part of a community that is busily studying discovering, documenting? whilst you know, the sources start to run low? It must, it must be? What What is that? Like?

Ilia Leitch 22:31

Um, I think, I think we try not to think of it like that, we try to think of it that what we're doing, enables us to provide robust evidence to help protect them. So by knowing what's out there, and undertaking biodiversity surveys, when areas where, for example, mining is going to is being planned, we can perhaps reverse and we are able to reverse political decisions in countries by providing that data that enables us to say, look, if you do this, you will lose X number of species. And why not go to this area? Well, it's not going to be so drastic. So it's sort of we try not to be too negative, I guess. I mean, yes, one could get very depressed if one was feeling thinking that. Well, by the time this is published as a new species, it's going to be extinct. So what's the point? We don't think like that. This? I don't?

Will McInnes 23:28

Okay, well, that's good. I feel already.

Ilia Leitch 23:32

And I'm sure lots of I'm sure every one of you feels like that, because we do it because of what value it brings to our understanding. Not because, oh, if I don't publish it, we'll never know it. And it's already gone extinct. We'd you know, we'd all be very gloomy, then I think. But we're not well, I

Unknown Speaker 23:50

feel I feel better.

Will McInnes 23:53

But I also feel confused. Is it good? Or is it bad?

Ilia Leitch 23:59

We can't say things if we don't know what's there. So we have to know what's there. And that's why what we do is important. And we have to and you know, we're in a good time now that the world is although there's still many people who don't appreciate the importance of this sort of work that we're still we are more people are you know that this is supposed to be the year of biodiversity? Well, of course, it's been an interesting year, for many reasons. And the importance of biodiversity is perhaps been overshadowed by certain things like COVID, just to, you know, obviously that's, you know, overshadowed everything. But the world is waking up to the importance of all these different factors which contribute to the complexity of the life that exists on this planet, in a way that I think it never has done before. And so that provides us with hope, that the more people who can understand because without understanding Of course, you Why bother to protect, you've got to be able to make it relevant to people that they understand what is why it matters, and why they need to make changes why we all need to make changes to the way we live our life more sustainably. So we have to take heart that we things are moving in the right direction. And we, you know, we've got the next at the moment is top of the agenda for many places. And so we've got to keep it keep it up there. So let's remain positive.

Will McInnes 25:36

I'm on board. I like to be I like to be positive. And you've really you've really supported that. And so let's talk about where when new insights are emerging from them, because because I do get a sense from you. And from the report and the work that Kew does that there is this discovery, there is this categorization, there are this this constant flowing theme of, of new, new insights. So so in the report, it was really interesting to understand the kind of shifting geographical location of where we're finding new species. And I read that between the 1990s and 2018, three countries consistently yielded the highest numbers of newly described species of plants, which was Brazil, China and Australia. However, in 2019, Australia was knocked out of the top three by Colombia, and Ecuador. And so that there's this interesting dimension of where we're finding species. And then there's another point in the report that says, well, well hang on a second, it won't actually only be where they are to be found, but also, where there are taxonomists scientific infrastructure security. So noting that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, only seven new species have been found. But that doesn't mean there aren't more to be found, it meant that the the environment both you know, politically and with the bowler meant that, that potentially, that would that was holding things back. So tell it tell us a bit about the geographical aspects of this,

Ilia Leitch 27:15

um, well, certainly being able to work with countries, you know, having countries who, who want to work with us, perhaps I should say, because we don't want to be in, you know, in this new sort of World of recognising not decolonizing, and all this new landscape that we're in, which is really important. And we, I mean, I should say, accuser, that embracing it, we don't want to just go in and tell people what they have, and then come back and take it all obviously, that's not the way that it works. But we have a lot, you know, Kew has a long, long history of bloat of having partnerships, which have gone on for, you know, decades and longer in many cases. And that enables us to, to work with the people locally on the ground to help them to understand their biodiversity. And so, particularly for, for Kew Verizon, we have strong links, particularly in Africa, and Southeast Asia and in Brazil. And, you know, we collaborate with people and work with them to discover new spaces in Colombia, as well as a country is very passionate as a country to learn about and understand and sustainably uses biodiversity. And it reached out to countries like to places like Kew and to other Institute's which have the taxonomic expertise to help work with us to contribute to documenting what diversity there is. So there was a lot of funding, which came in collaboration with with UK Government enable us to go in there and do field work with the scientists in Colombia, to document new species. So a lot of the new species that have been discovered, you know, from countries like that. So that's one of the ways in which you, you get to the countries working with us, which can lead to so the hotspots of new species discovery, whereas as you mentioned in other countries where it's politically unstable, although we know that there's likely to be lots of diversity there. We can't go in because we simply it's not. We can't it's not safe, and it's very difficult for, again, for the scientists there too. It's unsafe for them to go out and do these studies. So that will lead to the lead to this sort of unevenness of where new species are being discovered. I mean, there's also there's a general area, sort of what we call biodiversity hotspots in the world where the some Well, people are trying to understand why there's such concentrations of species richness in certain parts of the world, which not found And others, you know, the cape Flora of South Africa, Southern Africa is particularly rich wonder sort of biodiversity hotspots. And we've been working with scientists there as well. But Colombia looks like you know, second, I think it said now to be the second most biodiverse area in the world, as far as plants are concerned. So that's another area. So you've got this uneven, there's the uneven spread of species diversity is one thing, but there's the uneven focus of where where taxonomic expertise can be used working with the people in the countries to enable us to discover it

Will McInnes 30:39

as well. It will be so interesting to understand more about why certain hotspots might be might be such that just that piques my interest immediately, I want to know more like why, what is the richness. So that's quite exciting

Ilia Leitch 30:56

chance events, geological timescales of things, the underlying geologies of the soil, climatic factors, all sorts of things, I think, conspired to give rise to these. But yes, it's a really interesting area of what promotes species diversification and speciation events effectively. So it comes back to this sort of underlying genomic to some extent, the interaction between the genomics and the environment. And a biotic, as well as biotic factors, plant animal into interactions, of course, also play a vital role in driving the evolution of species richness. So there's all sorts of

Will McInnes 31:35

it's a complex system, really interesting, on continuing on this idea of discovery, where we're discovering was what we were just talking about. And then I love this phrase in the report, which is around citizen science. And because it touches on some of the other guests that we've had on the show and talking about open source intelligence, which is a very different world. But you know, we've had a guest talking about how you can use photos and video footage and other data from areas of conflict, to actually prove or understand the actors in those moments. And it's using a kind of large, semi coordinated group of enthusiasts, professionals, amateurs. And in the report, you talk about demonstrating the value of citizen science to taxonomy. All this is a difficult one, the Latin on this one's going to catch me out. ello, ello, grapher, Cam cam Mahajan, Genesis was only identified from Indonesia after a photo of it was posted on the Facebook group. And this is a new one to me, likens connecting people. That's not a Facebook group I can claim to have visited. But I love this idea that we're with the edges, we're harnessing a kind of greater a greater intelligence that's available to us. So just curious about like the interaction between citizens and scientists? What what's, what's your take on on that opportunity? And is that changing? Is that changing how? How this kind of science happens? Or is it always been that way?

Ilia Leitch 33:19

So there it Yes, I mean, there's a huge wealth of people are just interested in biodiversity, which is great taking pictures, which are leading to these discoveries. And I think there's a great potential there particularly with, you know, the more with the sort of image software recognition, machine learning approaches, which can enable you to, you know, identify things when you with appropriate training through machine learning, but then bringing that to identify to, to find things which you can't identify, and therefore, potentially new species, because we can't be everywhere, you've got pictures coming in, as you say, can lead to scientists who, under who know the differences between species to spot new species. And so there's that, you know, that should even out Indeed, the spread of new species discovery because people are going everywhere yet. You know, taxonomist are not able to do field work everywhere. So it has potential to lead to more that.

Will McInnes 34:14

Excellent. We'll be interesting to see how that how that evolves. I'd love to talk about funghi. Because I'm a big fan of funghi. Just generally, as you mentioned, your first few reports were about plants, then you did a dedicated report on funding and this year's report is about is about both like what it feels like a funghi is kind of like overlooked. Would you Would you agree with that? What's your take?

Ilia Leitch 34:41

I know completely. I think funghi are in an extraordinary Kingdom of organisms of huge diversity much more diverse and plants and animals. Well, I guess maybe not some insect lineages, but certainly, I mean, they estimate now that they're probably maybe as many as As many as 3 million species of funghi, probably something in that region two to 3 million, and yet, we have only described names for 125, or, I think is actually about 130,000 species. So we only have names for 130,000 species of funghi. But they estimate based on using DNA sequencing technologies, that there may be somewhere between two and 3 million species, and some people have even estimated 10 million. So yes, there's a huge diversity out there that we don't know about, that we don't really know about. And most people think fondly perhaps in a very limited way, either as sort of the mushrooms on toast, or the athlete's foot, or the boring disease they've got in their plants, which is causing it to die, you know, they have the either negative or sort of, maybe they like the mushrooms on toast, I don't know. But, you know, our exposure to them is very limited. And also because the fact that really the only time we see funghi, or when we're seeing there's these that you know, when we see mushrooms, for example. And yet that's just a game about the tip of the iceberg, because that's just the tip of the iceberg for a fungal organism, because it has, that's when it's reproducing, but most of the time, it's unseen underneath the ground, permeating through these long hyphy, which are sort of strands, which they used to go through the soil to find nutrients. And they're also but they're everywhere as well. And when these, okay, so they did a study where they were looking at sampling the air from across America, I think, and they did, they look to see what DNA was able to find in it. So they did this what they call environmental DNA sequencing. And they found the signatures of DNA from a huge diversity of funghi. That all is in the air all around us, there are fungal spores, and yet we're completely unaware of it. You know, so there's that there is this, it's it really is a sort of hidden Kingdom in the sense of, we can't see most of what there is, and that that we do see, we know very little about, and yet, what we do know about it, they're vitally important, because they play the vital they provide us with potent medicines. You know, that statens are based on funghi come from funghi they're important for penicillin, of course, which is I don't need to explain why that's so important. Bear G's and bread Of course, we couldn't be very happy without those sorts of things.

Will McInnes 37:36

Big fan of all of these.

Ilia Leitch 37:37

Yes. Yeah, me too. And so they, so they're providing us with with key things based on what we know about funding. So one could think, you know, what else is out there?

Will McInnes 37:50

Yeah. I love that. And, and it sounds so vast. I love the idea, the phrasing that used of this hidden Kingdom, and the the the sort of underestimated role. It's not the same at all, but it makes me think about, it makes me think about bees. It's kind of like it's, yeah, what what's playing a vital role that can be easily overlooked? And as you say, you know, beer, cheese antibotics these are all things that I love. A quick question from a friend of mine, Anna, she, Anna asked, What is the evolutionary need that that created psychoactive compounds in some fungus?

Ilia Leitch 38:32

Well, funghi produce a huge diversity of chemicals, because in order for them to gain their nutrition, they don't take food into them, they extrude enzymes which digest the food externally, and then they sort of absorb it back. So that's a way that they get the nutrition or sort of food. And to do that, obviously, if you're going to rake your food, you know, you're going to take for example, a log and set that you're going to digest and then extract the carbon from that for your own energy, you're actually doing it, lots of other people, lots of other organisms may want to come in and get that to. So you've got to fight everything off. Effectively, they produce a whole battery of different chemicals, which enable them to obtain their nutrition without others sneaking in and getting their fruit, you know, getting their female. And because of that, that's why there's a huge diversity of chemicals. And many of those have, as we've discovered, can have an impact on humans in a way that's completely unrelated to their function in the fungus, but have these interesting effects in humans. So it's not that they evolved in a way that good for us. They evolved for the function of the fungus and we have identified it as it can give rise to these these impacts in humans. And it's the same chemicals, you know, these, these statens, for example, when funded and help us with our cholesterol, they have a function in the fungus, which is vital for survival.

Will McInnes 40:11

And perhaps that that kind of brings us full circle, which is there's a human centric view of the world, which is, why does this do this for me? Yeah. But I think the central to everything that you've been saying is, isn't isn't this complex system remarkable. And if we can understand it better, what Won't we discover more things that might benefit us, but also benefit the, the whole? So there's this sense of, yeah, this sense of, there are so many unknown or unintended benefits, side effects consequences, interconnections that haven't yet been charted. And that's a guess what you guys are. That's the that's what you guys are charting. You're the cartographers of that,

Ilia Leitch 41:00

I guess we're Yeah, we're trying to Yeah, to put together the pieces. I guess, if you understand how things interact, and what the effect of one thing has on something else, you can understand how to maintain it and to ensure it survives. Whereas if you don't know, and it's just a black box, it's very hard to define, you know, to the workout, what is the best way to stop biodiversity loss, for example, what's the best way to help this particular species to be resilient to climate change, you have to go inside that black box to understand what's going on. In fact, you see, one thing I forgot to mention about funghi was that they many funghi play a vital role in helping plants to obtain that plant nutrients through their what they call these mycorrhizal associations of fungal association with the roots of the plant, where the plant provides the carbon from its photosynthesis into the fungus and the fungus, extracts nutrients and water from the soil and gives that plant so without those associations, dance would be much less healthy, you know, their abilities to survive in the environment, that would be less would be less good. And so, you know, understanding why why that association matters. And then understanding how changing in climate or, for example, adding too many fertilisers to the soil, or nitrogen deposition from agricultural practices? How does that impact that interaction between the plant and the fungus? You know, we need to understand that to know what's going to happen as we increasingly pollute the world. But if you don't understand the intricate natures of these relationships, you can't really work out what to do. So that's why I'm saying that you need to have that understanding. Was that your question? lover?

Will McInnes 42:55

Yeah. Steve, was, it was in the answer was griffing. Sorry, if I looked blank, it was because I was fully fully computing as I Oh, this is this is really, really, really profound and interesting. as we as we kind of move to a close in this discussion. I have another question, actually, from Anna, which was, as an individual, what are the most effective actions we can take to help our planet regenerate?

Ilia Leitch 43:25

I think that's such a good question. And I think it's one that we really need to hone in to really help people to understand what to do, I think, thinking about sustainability about what we eat and use, and the resources we that we use all the time, think where they've come from what went into making them is it sustainable, is it it's really about understanding that's how what we do impacts at the environmental level? I think I didn't, I was thinking about the thing with plastic bags. That was something that really gripped people they could see the tragedy of all that plastic in the ocean. And that's made a real difference and we need to find the equivalent in other areas of our life, which are you know, all our lives that unsustainable. We leave huge carbon footprints. Well, for most of us, huge carbon footprints, everything that we do. And being able to know I mean, it's something people really, I'm sure, a sort of crying out for to know what can you do I know that when I go to the supermarket, and I want to buy something, I try as much as I can with the information available to enable one to make sustainable choices, the more sustainable choices, but even those are not good. So I think it's knowing what we can do. And giving people that tool that they can also make sustainable choices, but also I guess, we need to be able to lobby governments and supermarkets, companies whatever, that they also embrace this importance of recognising The need to be sustainable, because only then will we come back to being, you know, I don't know what the numbers I know, it's been said about how many planets we're using, whereas we only have one planet. And we need to get back to living in a way that we only use the resources of one planet. And that's the challenge. But it's a great question. And I think it's something that we acute it would be, we need to guide people better. But I think for more, you know, it needs to come. I guess the other thing to say is that it's we, you know, we can all work at the individual level, which is really important, but the big changes will come from getting the government's to embrace it. So that there's real policy change, and then that policy change will filter through was also have a huge impact. So that's what I would say, I hope that helps either.

Will McInnes 45:54

And so, Dr Ilia, how can people follow your work? Where can we point people to To find out more? I will include the report in the show notes and the email that goes out. But what else? Where else would you point people?

Ilia Leitch 46:09

Well, we have the we have a science area on the Kew website. So there's, which has information about all the work that scientists are doing at Kew the projects that we're doing every week, there's a blog, which is written by one of the scientists about a particular aspect of their work, because I work I really talk just about a small amount of the diversity of things that Kew's doing. So you can find out much more about the different projects. And then for those also more interested deeply in the sorts of work that we're publishing, if they're sort of scientists, there's, we have a sort of a science repository for all the publications that are coming out in scientific journals. But those are the main places where you can find out all about us. exciting work, I think is exciting. And

Will McInnes 47:02

I would agree it's been it's been an exciting discussion. I know we've only skimmed the tiniest of surfaces of the work that you do, your team does, but the whole of Kew so thank you so much for your time today. I really, really appreciate it.

Ilia Leitch 47:15

Well, it's been a great pleasure. It's always fun. I like talking about about our work, and it's been you've had some great questions as well. So thank you.

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