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Mystery of the glowing Meghalaya mushrooms

Indian and Chinese researchers discover new bioluminescent mushroom in the Northeast

Guwahati, September 11: Nature never ceases to amaze. That glow in the forests of Meghalaya that you might come across in your hikes might not be fireflies.

It might be an “electric mushroom”, as called by local residents of West Jaintia Hills.

On August 23, 2018 a team from the Balipara Foundation, an NGO, had received information from local residents of West Jaintia Hills about this mushroom that glows at night.

“We did multiple night scouting in the forests of Meghalaya. One fine night in the West Jaintia Hills on August 23, 2018, we discovered an amazing luminous mushroom with the help of locals. We picked up some dead bamboo sticks and observed them closely,” said Gautam Baruah from the Balipara Foundation research team.

The Balipara Foundation aims to restore forests across Assam’s “Elephant Country”, stretching from Udalguri district to Sonitpur, along the Arunachal Pradesh -Assam – Bhutan border. It also envisages community participation in catering to biodiversity needs.

“We picked up some dead bamboo sticks and observed closely that the stalks (stipeses) of the tiny mushrooms on the bamboo were glowing green. Internationally acclaimed fungi photographer Steve Axford prepared a small outdoor studio and took some wonderful pictures in the dark. By looking at the morphology of the mushroom we identified it preliminary as Mycena or Roridomyces,” he added.

A group of scientists from Balipara Foundation and Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences named the new bioluminescent mushroom Roridomyces phyllostachydis a new species. The paper was published today in the Phytotaxa journal.

The appearance of Roridomyces phyllostachydis in day time (top) and night time (bottom)
Photo Credit : Stephen Axford

A fungal foray

A group of scientists from Balipara Foundation, in Assam’s Sonitpur district and Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences together did a foray in the Northeast to assess fungal biodiversity of the region.

The expedition was assisted by internationally acclaimed fungi photographer Steve Axford and videographer Catherine Marciniak.

During the assessment, the Balipara Foundation documented over 600 fungal varieties.

“We sequenced the ITS gene (a part DNA sequence used to identify fungi) of the mushroom to check which genus it belongs to, and the sequence results showed the mushroom belongs to Roridomyces. Among the 12 well-accepted species, Roridomyces irritans, R. lamprosporus, R. pruinosoviscidus, R. roridus, and R. sublucens are known to be bioluminescent,” said SamanthaKarunarathna, a lead mycologist from the Kunming Institute of Botany.

“The total number has risen to 13 with our new Roridomyces species, which was named Roridomyces phyllostachydis. The species name refers to the host bamboo tree Phyllostachys from where the mushroom was first collected,” the mycologist added.

Unique glow of Roridomyces phyllostachydis


Roridomyces phyllostachydis is unique in its bioluminescent nature compared to the 12 members in the genus as it has intense luminescent stipe (stalk) emitting greenish light but the beige coloured pileus (cap) with brownish center is not bioluminescent .

“This new species is unique compared to other species in the genus since only the stipe of the mushroom is bioluminescent. This is still a mystery,” he said.

Bioluminescent organisms

Bioluminescent organisms are a wonderful creation of nature. Animals, plants, fungi and bacteria show bioluminescence. Bioluminescent organisms are usually found in the ocean environments, but they are also found on land. The colour of the light emitted by the organism depends on their chemical properties.

Bioluminescent fungi obtain their luminescence from the enzyme luciferase. The glow is emitted when luciferans are catalysed by the enzyme luciferase, in the presence of oxygen. During the chemical reaction, several unstable intermediate products are released as excess energy, which makes them visible as light.

According to reports, 97 species of bioluminescent fungi are known worldwide.

Applications


Researches on bioluminescent fungi have gained attention due to their application in medical research, agricultural fields, environmental biosensors, biochemistry, photochemistry, evolution and taxonomic research.

Several hypotheses suggest that the luminescent properties of the fungi offer several advantages over other fungi with regard to the spore dispersal mechanism by attracting insects, and protecting themselves from frugivorous animals.

25 years in journalism. Always on the lookout for something exciting and new. A tea connoisseur and looking for new wildlife species!!!. A team man and a " crisis manager".