After a few minutes chatting with Peter Kennedy, fungi collection curator at the Bell Museum, it’s easy to picture him starring in a survival show called “The Mushroom Hunter.” Given his in-depth expertise about fungi, he’s someone you would like to have along if you’re lost in the forest, trying to survive on wild porcini, morels, and chanterelles.
In fact, forests are his specialty. An associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences, Kennedy studies fungi within groups of many forest trees and their roots. In his lab, he’s trying to answer questions about the ecology and evolution of plant-microbe interactions, particularly those involving symbiotic fungi and bacteria.
“These fungi are in the soil, scavenging nutrients, water, and doing other things that plants can’t do alone,” he explains. “They’re taking what they get from soil and trading it for sugars that plants make from photosynthesis, so both the fungi and the plants benefit.”
Kennedy grew up near Seattle and attended college in Washington and Northern California, so he’s well-versed in the fungi of the Pacific Northwest. But his move to Minnesota has opened up an even broader range of research.
“The diversity of mushrooms in Minnesota is really high,” he says. “We have the conifer forests up north in our boreal habitat, we have mixed temperate hardwood in the middle of state, so we have a confluence of east and west.” The Bell collection holds long-term records of this diversity thanks to field sites across Minnesota, including Itasca Biological Station and Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.
Rust fungi and other plant pathogens are a strength at the Bell, including specimens collected from South America in the 1920s and 1930s. These pathogens help to inform the past, present, and future of agricultural crops. For example, when fertilizers became cheap and convenient in the 1940s and 1950s, farmers used a lot of nitrogen in their fields. Some of that blew over and fell onto the forests. Looking at specimens before and after that time period can reveal the effects it had on the forest fungi.
It’s not hard to find fungi in Minnesota, especially in the fall. Fungi grow inside, outside, and everywhere around us. It’s growing in bogs, in the soil and roots, on fruits and leaves, on the trunks of trees. For those in search of a psychedelic experience, you can even find it on cow poop (the Bell has at least a dozen species of psilocybin mushrooms).
Nevertheless, our overall knowledge of fungi in Minnesota is limited. For a third of counties in the state, no records exist of mushroom collections or their relatives. So, a top priority at the Bell is to better catalog this cryptic diversity locally. In collaboration with the Minnesota Mycological Society and citizen scientists, Kennedy and his team continue to visit new locations of the woods, gather samples and data on different species, and add it to the collection.
“We know there are fungi in all of those places, but we have yet to collect them,” says Kennedy. “We still have a lot of work to do.”
Along with local scientists, many national and international researchers make frequent use of the Bell’s fungi collection. In any given week, Kennedy loans out specimens to colleagues, students, agencies, and others doing everything from species identification and mineral analysis to DNA sequencing.
The collection’s 100,000-plus specimens are housed in an herbarium on the St. Paul campus. They are dried, frozen briefly to kill any bugs, and stored in small cardboard boxes. Specimens range from the delicious to the deadly—from little black dots on leaves, to the mushrooms you see in the grocery store.
Until recently, access was limited to professional academics. Now, anyone can explore the collection through the Minnesota Biodiversity Atlas. If you find something interesting and want to share what you’ve learned, note that the experts pronounce it fun-jih, with a hard “G.” (But don’t let this ruin your “fun guy” jokes.)