After undergraduate studies (degree in Biology and Mathematical Statistics) at the University of Exeter, I was interested in any and every type of ecology. As luck would have it, there was a research assistant position at Queen Mary College, University of London to work on wood decay processes, and this turned out to be the subject of my PhD. This started my almost 40 year interest in the subject. Since fungi are the major agents of decomposition, it was inevitable that they would feature foremost in my subsequent research, beginning with the structure and development of fungal communities in attached branches, when a post-doc at Bath. Then with a permanent position at Cardiff I was able to branch out (pun intended!) to investigate some of those burning (appropriate for wood) questions that already had arisen in my mind. Most aspects of my research overlap, but could perhaps be divided into categories such as: antagonistic interactions (why are they important and how do they operate?); mycelia and foraging strategies (how does the mycelial architecture of fungi fit with their ecology and life style? how do they search for food, and what happens when they find it?); fungal communities (how are they structured, how do they alter and how does they affect processes?); interactions with other organisms such as invertebrates and bacteria (how are fungi affected, how do fungi affect the other organisms, and do these interactions affect ecosystem processes?); nutrient cycling and movement (when do fungi release nutrients back to the surrounding environment, and where and when do they move them around their mycelia?); climate change (how are fungi affected, and what effects will this have on the functioning of the ecosystems of which they are a crucial part?).
This is an exciting world of fungal battles, and life and death struggles, sometimes operating on a microscopic scale and sometimes over very many square metres. As well as scientifically challenging and environmentally of massive consequence (without them the terrestrial ecosystems of planet Earth would not work), mycelia and their interactions have a huge aesthetic appeal. It is these questions and many more that I, along with over the years around 40 PhD students, post-docs and other co-workers, have striven and are striving to answer.
The importance of fungi to the world we inhabit cannot be overstated – on land they are essential for releasing nutrients locked up in dead plant material, and in directly feeding nutrients to plants. Further, so far as man is directly concerned, they produce many life-saving pharmaceuticals, foods and beverages, novel compounds, bio-control agents and much more besides. It is a joy to communicate this both to student audiences and to the public at large.