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Lifelong joy of foraging for fungal delights
Liu Xingzhong spoke to Stephen Chen
Professor Liu Xingzhong is China's top fungus expert. Twice a year for the past two decades, the principal investigator of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Microbiology has obtained government funding for fungus forays in the high mountains and deep valleys. The government wants an economic return from these field trips, but as most fungi that Liu has found have no economic value, funding was stopped this year.
How do you persuade your PhD students, and yourself, to devote a lifetime to studying fungi?
Studying fungi will make you a sharp decision-maker and give you a long life. When you see a spot of mould in the wild, you have no high-resolution microscope and hours to help decide whether it is an interesting species worth collecting. You must make a fast and accurate decision, or you will be lost in the woods forever, let alone regret missing a great find. Making good decisions under pressure requires years of training and practice, and studying fungi can be effective. Some of our students are now high-ranking government officials.
As for the long life, in our lab there is a tradition that only those who make it to 80 get birthday parties, because we have many long-lived professors. The oldest is 105. Fungus researchers spend lots of time handling and examining samples under microscopes - a job that requires absolute peace of mind. I have a PhD student who stormed out and threw up the first time he sat down to study a fungi sample, because he could not focus. But once you are used to it, you are hooked for the rest of your life. You want to spend every second with the samples. When examining a new species under the microscope, you forget about all the unhappiness and ugliness of life, which is why I conclude that studying fungi makes you live long. I don't study fungi for either of those reasons, though. I just want to be happy, and studying fungi makes me very happy.
What is a fungus foray?
We do fungus forays twice a year - three weeks in summer and two weeks in winter. We hire a car and drive to the end of a road early in the morning, abandon it, trudge into remote valleys and mountains until the sun rises directly overhead and the mobile phone signal disappears. Then we have lunch, simple but delicious, and always have soup. In the late afternoon we go back to our car along a different route. We collect as we walk. In the evening, we have dinner at a hotel, often with wine, to celebrate exciting finds before sitting down with microscopes to work. We work until 2am, throw ourselves into bed, wake up at seven and repeat the same thing next day. We sleep only five hours and work like dogs. To fungus researchers, it is the most agreeable time of the year.
Compared with countries with a long tradition of fungus forays such as Britain, how much do we know about fungi on the mainland?
In Western countries, fungus forays have been a habit of aristocrats and gentlemen for over a hundred years. It's still quite popular. Most species have been found, described and named. You need to be extremely lucky to find something new in those countries. But in China, there is little interest and understanding about fungi. We don't even know how to eat them. Take porcino, which is available in many mainland supermarkets. All housewives buy it in heaps and wash it thoroughly before frying in a wok. But porcino should never be washed. Running water takes away polysaccharide that gives the famous fungus its delicious taste and flavour.
Without government funding for the forays, will your research suffer dearly?
Although the government no longer encourages and supports fungus forays [with funding], they still fund studies on fungi's genetic decoding and medical application, which is also important and is what our team is doing. Such research is not motivated by personal interest, but money. Last year I participated in a fungus foray in Italy and deeply felt that the gap between our countries lies not in hardcore science and hi-tech equipment, but heart. Many participants in that foray were amateurs, but they knew more about fungi than we so-called professionals.
An 80-year-old retired worker from Britain spent decades of spare time studying one family of fungi, and his knowledge and expertise stunned my Chinese colleague, who studies the same field. I spent an afternoon with a young French cook who studies porcino and toppled my understanding about the common fungus over decades. They conduct forays with their own money and build laboratories in the basements of their houses. I hope that as our country gets wealthier and wealthier, fungus forays will become a social habit as well. China is a gold mine of unknown species.