PROSPECT, Ore. — When Robert Coffan discovered psathyrella aquatica, he wasn’t looking for it. The professor waded into the Rogue River during a picnic with his family. Coffan spotted a tiny pale mushrooms growing out of the riverbed in the flowing water, and realized he was seeing something strange.
Coffan convinced a pair of mycologists at Southern Oregon University, Darlene Southworth and Jonathan Frank, to come take a look. Five years later, the team introduced Coffan’s discovery to the world as a new species. Psytherella aquatica is the only species of true, gilled mushroom that grows underwater, though there are aquatic cup fungi. “It looks like something you could buy at Safeway and put on a pizza” Southworth says.
Frank says figuring out how to collect the mushroom and get it back to the lab intact was a puzzle at first:
“I remember, grabbing bottles and bags and an aquarium. Things you don’t usually take on a mushroom hunting trip… in the end I stuck it in a little mason jar and sealed it up very tightly.”
But getting the scientific community to accept a new species can be as challenging as collecting a mushroom growing underwater for the first time. At first glance, psathyrella aquatica looks identical to hundreds of known species of little brown mushroom that grow on land. Its genus, psathyrella, is a group of mushrooms famous for giving mycologists headaches and being difficult to tell apart. The mycologists compared samples of their underwater mushroom and its spores under a microscope to hundreds of dried specimens in the psathyrella genus.
The lab sequenced a fingerprint region of the underwater mushroom’s DNA, and compared it against DNA in a national database and sequences from the dried samples. The underwater mushroom had a unique DNA fingerprint. They published their work last year, and psathyrella aquatica was named one of the most significant species discovered in 2010.
Now the mycologists are trying to understand how aquatica adapted to a life aquatic, and where exactly it lives.
So far, they’ve only found two populations of the mushroom fruiting in a single mile stretch of the Rogue River, not far from Crater Lake National Park.
“We know it’s growing in a year-round stream that’s clear, cold, and volcanic. But we don’t know which of these things make it a particularly suitable habitat for this mushroom,” Southworth says. “So we’re trying to find it in other places.”
But the team has no source of funding to study the mushroom, and Southworth, a professor emeritus, has been a volunteer in her own mycology lab for the last ten years. Every year around August when the mushroom fruits, she gathers volunteers to search for new sites. “It’s pretty damn hard to spot,” Southworth says. She hopes people across the northwest will keep an eye out for it.
“I think we should be looking on Mt. Hood, all up and down the spine of the Cascades…the Olympics, the Sierra Nevada, the Alps and the Andes. Wherever there’s fast moving cold water, have a look. And call us.”
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