Gregory Mueller has a nose for fungi.
Over his career, the chief scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden has gathered samples from China to Costa Rica, but he made his most recent discovery a little closer to home.
“Cantharellus chicagoensis — or the Chicago chanterelle — is evidence that researchers don’t have to work in the tropics to discover new and interesting biodiversity,” says Mueller, a member of Northwestern’s Program in Plant Biology and Conservation (PBC) and the Negaunee Foundation Vice President of Science at the Botanic Garden. “The Chicago region is home to an incredible array of animals, fungi, and plants that provide essential ecological roles to the benefit of millions of people.”
The PBC is an educational collaboration between Northwestern and the Chicago Botanic Garden that has resulted in more than 50 masters’ degrees and two PhDs. More than a dozen students are currently pursuing their doctorate as part of the program.
Among other places, Mueller found the bright yellow chanterelle growing amidst the decomposing leaves lining the garden’s woods.
Researchers decided to explore the genetic roots of the mushroom after noticing it matured a little differently than most.
“When it’s young, the Chicago Chanterelle often has a pale, greenish tint around the margin, which very few chanterelles have,” said Patrick Leacock, Field Museum adjunct curator, in a September 22 interview with local PBS affiliate WTTW. “In the Chicago area, that’s the only one that would have any green on the edge. It also tends to get grey and scaly around the center of the cap, which the other ones don’t.”
Leacock described the Chicago chanterelle as having a sweet and savory flavor, juicy texture, and traces of light fruitiness that make it ideal for cooking.
Until recently, researchers considered yellow chanterelles to be a single species, but the work of Mueller and others have proven that is not the case.
“Rather than one highly variable nearly cosmopolitan species, the yellow chanterelle is really a complex of species, each with its own distribution and habitat requirements,” he says. “The more we study it, the more we document new players and more complexity in biodiversity.”
Mueller; Leacock; Jill Riddell, a School of the Art Institute of Chicago adjunct assistant professor; Andrew Wilson, a PBC postdoctoral fellow; and Rui Zhang and Chen Ning, PBC graduate students, published their findings in the July-August issue of Mycologia.
After gathering samples of the fungus, the research team extracted and sequenced its DNA. Analyzing the data and comparing it to already documented chanterelles confirmed the new species.
This discovery has important conservation implications. “If a species grows in multiple continents within a great diversity of habitats, loosing it here or there is no big deal as there are so many other populations,” says Mueller. “But, as has been shown for the yellow chanterelle and many other complexes, there are many species, each with a distinct distribution, habitat, and interactions with plants and animals.” As a result, Mueller says these species need to be included in conservation assessments and management plans.