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I came across this article in the November, 1997 issue of the journal Nature and thought it was worthy of posting here.
"Some of the homobasidiomycete group of fungi, which includes most of the mushrooms with which we are familiar, have earned exotic names such as bird's nest and puffball because of the appearance of their fruiting bodies (the part of the fungus that produces the spores).
Traditional classification divides this group into the gilled fungi (which have fruiting bodies with a cap and a gilled underpart containing the spores) and the puffballs and relatives (in which the spores are enclosed within variously shaped fruiting bodies). The gilled species expel their spores by an elaborate ballistic mechanism (ballistospory) whereas the puffballs, for instance, slowly crumble; gently releasing their cargo. Although fruiting bodies are diverse in appearance, their anatomy is very simple. This, coupled with the dearth of fossil evidence, has made it difficult to unravel the fungal family tree.
Writing in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, David Hibbett and colleagues have tackled the complexities of fungal evolution by molecular analyses of 81 species. They compared the nucleotide sequences of various genes and drew up a family tree based on the similarity of sequences between different species.
It turns out that the same gill-and-cap style of fruiting body evolved at least six times. Furthermore, some of the puffballs and their relatives arose from their gilled cousins whereas others, such as the bird's nest fungus, developed independently. It seems that the group including the puffballs never evolved into gilled mushrooms. The authors surmise that ballistospory can develop into other forms of dispersal, but the reverse has not occurred."
If these findings are correct, I wonder what the significance of them could be? That is, why can ballistospory develop into other forms of dispersal, but the reverse hasn't occurred? Do you guys have any ideas? I thought this was a very interesting article, as I have not learned anything of fungal evolution until reading this.
As far as I know, the evolutionary history of fungi is still pretty much a mystery, and I'd like to read up more on what is known about this subject. My list of things to research is becoming quite intimidating!
I believe that biological evolution has a lot to do with geographic location. Maybe the different mushrooms evolved differently because of changing climates, spore distribution to new areas, and things like that. I think one reason that gilled-fungi would evolve to puff-ball fungi is because of a change in moisture in their habitats. If the climate got drier, maybe the mushrooms would want to find a way to send their spores farther away to a moist environment where germination would be better. It's kind of strange that scientists haven't spent more time studying fungi considering how much they've impacted human civilization. I heard a man named James Arthur on a radio talk show who did a wonderful speech on how mushrooms helped evolve early religions and human conciousness. You should look him up if your interested in that stuff, he wrote a book called "Mushrooms and Mankind", its pretty interesting.
-------------------- "The only unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain and everything is changeable."
I think one reason that gilled-fungi would evolve to puff-ball fungi is because of a change in moisture in their habitats. If the climate got drier, maybe the mushrooms would want to find a way to send their spores farther away to a moist environment where germination would be better.
This makes a lot of sense. Another article about fungi that I came across in one of those Nature journals talked about a study done that showed gilled fungi have a higher spore release rate during times of high humidity.
Maybe it is not necessarily to send spores farther away to moister environments (because then why wouldn't they evolve back to a gilled fungi once they reached a moist environment?), but they were forced to evolve into puffball fungi when the climate got drier simply to ensure a large spore release. Since gilled fungi release more spores when it is humid out, drier climate would have caused their reproduction rate to go way down. Then maybe there were mutant gilled fungi that were similar to puffball fungi, and these ones ended up releasing more spores, and eventually (through natural selection), only the puffball fungi remained and it became a new species.