UBC researcher develops app to identify poisonous mushrooms

Mary Berbee, a professor in the department of botany, helps students identify mushrooms. Credit: Paul Joseph/UBC

Foraging is a centuries-old practice, but many of the mushrooms in British Columbia are just now being identified through DNA sequencing and the enthusiasm of amateur collectors.

Mary Berbee, a professor in the department of botany, is responding to the increased interest in foraging by developing an app in collaboration with the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, B.C. Centre for Disease Control, regional mushroom clubs, and UBC’s Peter Wall Institute Institute for Advanced Studies that will help collectors identify mushrooms out in the woods in order to avoid poisonous species.

Why are you creating an app for identifying mushrooms?

More and more people are attached to their phones. It’s increasingly the case that people will have their cellphones and not field guides – books that list different mushroom species – when they go out in the woods. Posters can be useful but they are static. The app shows all the lookalikes for mushrooms that you might find in the area, and it’s easier to cross reference.

What are some of the challenges that come with developing information for the public about mushrooms?

Many cultures have a tradition of foraging, but many people come to B.C. from other places, so they don’t necessarily know our mushrooms particularly well.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control is developing a translated poster that warns about death cap mushrooms (Amanita phalloides) to be posted in various places where we know these poisonous mushrooms grow, warning foragers in the languages we think are going to be most helpful.

Why is there a lack of knowledge about different types of mushrooms in B.C.?

Mushrooms don’t have a whole lot of characteristics that you can use to distinguish them. People in Sweden and Northern Europe initiated the scientific tradition of describing fungal species in the 1800s, but their early descriptions were really slender.

In the 1990s, as people started to use DNA sequences to understand species of mushrooms, they were astonished by geographical differentiation. About a third of our B.C. species are regional and not shared with Europe as previously assumed. Many of them are new to science. Using DNA sequencing, we can much more accurately determine the types of mushrooms we have and their geographical ranges.

I think the diversity of mushrooms in British Columbia is fantastic. It feels as if we’re looking at a continent that has never been explored before, because it really hasn’t. We’re finding a huge number of things that are new to science with relatively little effort, and that’s exciting.

Is there a process for testing if a mushroom is poisonous?

No. There was actually a satirical article in The Onion about needing half a million people to try a mushroom to know if it’s poisonous. The toxin concentration is not something that can be tested for in most species. On the Vancouver campus, I haven’t seen any particularly poisonous ones, but I have seen some that would give you a stomachache.