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Using DNA for Fungi Conservation: An Interview with Noah Siegel

Whatman donated 300 FTA cards to the Telluride Mushroom Festival, August 16 – 19, 2014, for the protection and storage of DNA. Join us in the Citizen Science Tent at Elks Park August 16th through 19th where America’s leading mycologists will enlist YOU in extracting fungal DNA… Warning, according to Noah Siegel, it involves a hammer!

Visiting Mycologist Noah Siegel Explains How Telluride Will Participate in National Research on Fungal DNA


Myologist Noah Siegel

Noah’s field mycology skills are extensive – he has spent two decades seeking, photographing, identifying, and furthering his knowledge about all aspects of macrofungi. He has hunted for mushrooms throughout the United States and Canada, as well as on multiple expeditions to New Zealand and Australia.

He is one of the premier mushroom photographers in the nation, having won numerous awards from the North American Mycological Association (NAMA) photography contest. His technique and attention to detail are unrivaled, arising from a philosophy of maximizing utility for identification purposes while maintaining a high degree of aesthetic appeal.

Noah recently worked with Green Mountain Digital as a consultant for the Audubon Guide to Mushrooms of North America Macintosh/Apple application, and supplied over 300 photographs for it. His photographs have appeared on the covers and have been featured in articles of multiple issues of FUNGI Magazine and Mushroom the Journal, the primary mushroom enthusiast magazines in the United States, numerous mushroom books; including the cover shot on Ascomycete Fungi of North Americas. He is currently working on, along with Christian Schwarz, Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast, a comprehensive field guide for the northern California coast.

He is past president of the Monadnock Mushroomers Unlimited, (MMU) a mushroom club based out of Keene, NH, and is an active member of the Humboldt Bay Mycological Society and the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz. He serves as a trustee for the Northeast Mycological Federation and NAMA and is on NAMA’s Photography Committee and is the Chairperson for the NAMA Foray Committee.

Noah travels and lectures extensively across America, following the mushrooms from east to west and everywhere in between.

Interview with Noah Siegel

by Rebecca Fyffe

For the first time, what happens at the Telluride Mushroom Festival doesn’t stay in Telluride… No, I’m not talking about something that might show up on YouTube that you wish hadn’t done: I’m talking about the first ever Telluride Voucher Program, which will send the DNA of Telluride’s mushrooms to labs around the country for analysis.

The 33rd Annual Telluride Mushroom Festival, presented by the Telluride Institute, will be held at the Palm Theatre (721 W. Colorado Ave) in Telluride, Colorado, on Saturday, August 16 through Tuesday, August 19, with pre- festival workshops on August 15. This year, the festival will center around four tracks within the field of mycology: medicinal, mycoremediation, entheogenic, and culinary. Visiting mycologist Noah Siegel is traveling to Telluride from Massachusetts, on his way to Alaska, to help direct the Telluride Mushroom Festival’s Voucher Program. Noah and a team of other nationally renowned mycologists will erect a Citizen Science Tent in Elks Park during the Telluride Mushroom Festival and invite the public to stop by with specimens that they would like identified or to get involved. University students and those with serious interest should contact the Telluride Mushroom Festival organizers in advance to inquire about helping with the program.

Rebecca Fyffe: Noah, what is a voucher specimen?

Noah Siegel: Let’s say you find a collection of the King Bolete in CO this summer, you collect a few specimens, bring them back to the science tent and give them up so they can be saved; (for science, not for eating). Ideally, you’ll also submit a photograph that you took in the field where the specimen was collected. For those who want to collect specimens for the project, we’re creating field note tags where you’ll record the date, location, substrate, tree association, odor, taste, staining/bruising info, etc, or any features that don’t show up in the photo. Part of the benefit of having world-class mycologists working with avid amateurs is that the amateurs acquire the professionals’ scientific rigor, while the professionals tap into the amateurs regional expertise. It’s a perfect partnership. Each specimen is then given a collection number for tracking purposes and the DNA is taken.

RF: How is the DNA collected outdoors in a tent?

Literature by Noah Siegel

Literature by Noah Siegel

NS: A small piece of fungal tissue will be placed on a Whatman FTA Card and smashed into the paper with a hammer! This small piece of tissue, hammered into a special paper allowed for easy DNA extraction at a later date, because the paper is treated with a preservative. The collection is then dried in a food dehydrator, and placed into a plastic bag when fully dried. It is then housed at a herbarium where it is filed away in small boxes, so 50-100 years from now, one can go back and look at the mushrooms we found at the 2014 TMF!

And thanks to a generous donation from Dr. John Holliday from Aloha Medicinals, there is funding to do the sequencing, which is so important in such an under-funded field such as taxonomic mycology. This will also be the first time a public mushroom foray has ever had all of its collections sequenced! Something that not even the North American Mycological Association has succeeded in doing.

RF: What purpose do these saved specimens serve?

NS: These specimens are available to anybody to be studied at a later date. A lot of the features needed to identify mushrooms are microscopic, which are easily attained from dried mushrooms. Say you find an Inocybe (a Little Brown Mushroom, or LBM), chances are nobody at the TMF is going to know which species it is, but if we save a specimen, we can send the specimen to an Inocybe specialist to work on. If we didn’t save it, and just tell her “we found a brown Inocybe,” there would never be an official record, since it was not vouchered, and if climate change or another environmental factor required us to monitor the species, we couldn’t. We’re discovering more about fungi every day, and one never knows which species will prove key to a scientific breakthrough.

RF: Are some mushrooms going extinct?

NS: Saving specimens helps us better understand what we have right now, and lets us determine if the same mushrooms still occur there in the future, or if certain species have disappeared. The song “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” wasn’t accurate. Regardless of what Joni Mitchell says, if you don’t know what you have now, you won’t even know if it’s gone! There was a Bolete described from southeastern Vermont (about 30 miles from my home) in the late 1800’s; Boletus peckii. It was described as “very common” and there are a lot of herbarium specimens from the northeast in the late 1800’s into the 1930’s, but then it starts disappearing, with only four collections since 1965, the last one being 1992, from the western North Carolina mountains. How many mushroom species has this happened to? We need to do a better job of documenting what’s there.

RF: What do the DNA sequences tell us?

NS: They usually tell us that things are a lot more complicated than we know. It’s another tool to help distinguish similar species. The charts we use look like trees and show how these mushrooms branch off and are related to each other. We as humans have used “artificial” features to distinguish and key out mushrooms, like spore color, lumping all tooth fungi together, or putting all fungi with ridges and folds into the Chanterelle family. The DNA help clarify which family they actually belong to, which is often in stark disagreement to what we had presumed.

It also causes us to look closer at species we thought we knew. For instance, when Else Vellinga and Nhu Nguyen started sequencing California’s Black Elfin Saddle (Helvella lacunosa) they noticed that there were two distinct species, neither of which were the same as the European Helvella lacunosa, so they described two new species, Helvella vespertina, a fall fruiting conifer associate, and H. dryophila, a spring fruiting oak associate. Two additional collections I gave them from the California mountains turned out to be additional undescribed species. All of this happened because when a few voucher collections were sequenced, they noticed that there was more than one species. Now, what is Colorado’s Helvella “lacunosa”? We should make a point to look for it this year in Telluride and find out which, if any of these, it’s related to.

RF: Noah, how can people in Colorado or around the country get involved in your efforts in Telluride this August?

Literature by Noah Siegel

Literature by Noah Siegel

NS: Merely attending the Telluride Mushroom Festival and bringing your mushrooms to the Citizen Science Tent in Elks Park, so I can see them and determine if they’re useful to the Voucher Program is a big help. You have hundreds of people in the woods collecting mushrooms, and a good deal of these mushrooms they collect are undescribed; “new to science”. Here is an opportunity to take advantage of these Citizen Scientists. Having hundreds of eyes in the woods, covering many acres of ground, collecting many different species of mushrooms and bringing that back to a central point is invaluable. In the past at the Telluride Mushroom Festival, the edibles have been consumed, and the remaining collections have been tossed. In the process, we were tossing an untold number of undescribed species, rare or poorly known species, or even common species that haven’t been sequenced or studied diligently enough. Your attendance at the festival forays this year will help us understand how mycoflora will change in the future. This year will be a big step forward, not only for the Telluride Mushroom Festival and for Colorado, but for mycology as a whole.

Hopefully I’ve explained a little about voucher specimens, and why they are important. But feel free to ask more questions, and please get involved. Even if you’re a complete beginner when it come to foraging, fungi and mushroom hunting, your participation is vital and I’m looking forward to working with you.

Get your tickets here:
Telluride Mushroom Festival
August 16 – 19, 2014
Pre-Conference Workshops on Friday, August 15th

Check out this ‘How To’ video to learn more about sampling DNA using
Whatman FTA Cards

About the Author: Rebecca Fyffe is an avid photographer and writer with a strong interest in social justice, anthropology, ethnobotany, the rainforest and indigenous peoples. Professionally, she is a state-certified nuisance wildlife control specialist and wildlife educator who leads public health outreach for the nonprofit organization, The Wildlife Control Policy Institute, NFP, civil engineering-scale architectural bird control projects for Chicago Wildlife Management and consulting and strategic direction for ABC Humane Wildlife Control and Prevention, Illinois’ largest nuisance wildlife control firm. Rebecca has been cultivating her relationship with fungi since before she could walk. She is now the president of the Illinois Mycological Association and Director of the 2014 Telluride Mushroom Festival.

2 thoughts on “Using DNA for Fungi Conservation: An Interview with Noah Siegel

  1. Grabbing DNA on Whatman cards is just the very first and easiest step. Who is funding and/or doing the DNA analysis? I heard that the Medicinal Mushroom company invited to Telluride this year was donating funds; is the DNA itself being sent overseas?

    Where will all of this eventual genetic and photographic information be stored and available? Genbank? Or the Denver Herbarium? Or Mushroomobserver?

    What were the collection protocols? Document everything that comes in? Was every collection completed with photos and descriptions, or just unusual collections? Anything truly rare or completely unknown come in this year? Were all interesting collections vouchered, or just DNA samples taken?

    Did any Telluride collection photos go up on MO yet, especially the unusual ones? Is someone “officially” in charge of that documentation?

    Is there a working fungal species list for Telluride 2014 up somewhere?
    I know that it can take time to really confirm some of those IDs, but ya gotta start somewhere. 😉

    Curious as to what was found in Telluride this year. Colorado is a wonderful place to collect interesting and beautiful and yes, even edible fungi!

    I have my own work cut out for me with extensive recent collections in Alaska. The mushrooms that we found and documented are slowly coming into the public purvue, on MO and elsewhere. Almost 200 species collected and identified in our small group of collectors on the Kenai Peninsula, in less than a week’s worth of collecting! And this was supposed to be my megafauna trip to Alaska! Like for most group collections, not everything could be IDed to species, or sometimes even genus. Fun to solve a mystery.

    I am delighted to hear that Telluride is finally paying attention to the many interesting mushrooms that pass through participants’ hands, and mostly just end up on a compost pile. It is certainly not only Telluride that has been guilty of this in the past. All of these mushroom forays/fairs/conferences are opportunities to learn, and who better to learn from than the mushrooms themselves?

    Keep up the good work.

    Debbie Viess
    Bay Area Mycological Society

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