Fungi are among the least studied and least understood organisms. Elevated from plants to their own kingdom in 1969, they are extremely diverse yet difficult to observe, since many species cannot be grown in the lab. The gaps in our knowledge of the fungi are being filled by new efforts to catalog them, but one of the most interesting findings may come from analysis of their genomes. A new study shows that introns (intragenic regions) are more dynamic than previously thought.
How do you pronounce fungi? Everyone knows the singular fungus, but the plural gets a variety of pronunciations. Dictionary.com allows for either fun•jie or fun•guy as appropriate; David Attenborough usually says fun•ghee. Take your pick; they are still fun to look at (see cute mushrooms at Flickr.com) – but no fun if you eat the wrong ones. Never eat a mushroom in the wild! Every healthy, safe mushroom has a look-alike that is poisonous. The diversity of fungi is astonishing. Some even glow in the dark.
Fungi are extremely important to the whole biosphere. The BBC News said that “fungi, which fall between plants and animals on the tree of life, are the hidden helpers of our environment: they recycle waste and dead matter, and provide plants with water and nutrients.” Dr. Martyn Ainsworth, a fungus researcher at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, said, “They are absolutely fundamental to ecosystems. Fungi are really the behind-the-scenes team that are doing all the work.” But as we know, humans have to deal with economic downsides of unwanted fungi like rusts, molds and blights. The BBC article said that some of the most interesting findings are coming from genetics.
An example was just published in Current Biology.1 Torriani et al. announced “Evidence for Extensive Recent Intron Transposition in Closely Related Fungi.” Introns are non-coding DNA found between the “exons” – the coding parts that have to be spliced together after transcription from DNA to make messenger RNA. Why are these introns, like spacers, transcribed, only to be clipped out? Why does intron density vary by three orders of magnitude among eukaryotes? These have long been mysteries. Torriani et al. studied three closely-related species of fungi and found “74 intron positions showing intraspecific presence-absence polymorphisms (PAPs) for the entire intron.”
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