SALT LAKE CIT (ABC4) – The Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU) has published the results of a first-of-its-kind study on porcini mushrooms, which indicate that these mushrooms evolve based on the local conditions in which they are found.

The genetic survey of Boletus edulis, commonly known as porcini mushrooms, was conducted in NHMU’s Dentinger Lab by Dr. Bryn Dentinger, Curator of Mycology at NHMU and Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Utah, and Keaton Tremble, University of Utah School of Biological Sciences Ph.D. candidate.

It is the largest-ever genetic survey for any “single non-model organism,” and their findings are reportedly seminal in the field of fungal biology.  

Through this study, Dentinger and Tremble have found that the genetics of porcini mushrooms evolve based on the local environmental conditions in which they are found.

“Typically, fungi are compared and classified based on whether they’re from one small geographic area or another, without much attention paid to incremental changes that occur between them,” said Dentinger. “Our study is important because it goes beyond overly simplistic sampling methods used in the past.”

Instead of the classic, over-simplified approach, Dentinger and Tremble set out to collect a massive set of these porcini mushroom specimens and evaluate their genetics. They took samples from across the globe, including Central America, Europe, and Utah. In fact, throughout the study, more than 160 different samples from across the Northern Hemisphere were examined at their lab.

What they learned is that porcini demonstrate remarkable species diversity based on several factors, not just geographic location. 

“This study shows that you don’t need isolation for genetic divergence,” Tremble said. “The force of ecological adaptation is so strong in Boletus edulis that even though you can disperse spores basically anywhere, there is strong selection to adapt to specific environments.”

When Dentinger and Tremble weren’t out scavenging for porcini themselves – either in the Uinta Mountains or abroad in places like Antigua, Guatemala – they relied on NHMU’s in-house fungus collection, as well as previous collections at other institutions.

After exhausting those data, Dentinger and Tremble reportedly collaborated with fungus collectors from all over the world.

“Finding fungi is a treasure hunt; you have to rely on opportunistic encounters in nature to collect a living sample,” Dentinger said, explaining the importance of reaching out for help from around the world. “This is fundamentally different from working with plants, which are there in every season, and animals, which you can bait.” 

Understanding how species form is one of the most fundamental questions in biology. Dentinger and Tremble’s study is important because it challenges commonly held assumptions about the role of “physical isolation” in how species form because those assumptions are reportedly based almost entirely on plants and animals.

Their study demonstrates that a more inclusive approach is needed to get a complete view of nature. The research also explains how these edible mushrooms are evaluated as food, potentially grading them in the same way that the best wines in the world are.

Mushroom hunters claiming to have the most delicious porcini may have reason to back that claim with data, thanks to this study, which was made possible with funding from the National Science Foundation and the resources at the NHMU.