Polar bears might be dying off, but new species of species of life are discovered all the time. Metal-eating plants, meat-eating plants. Hell, there are even sharks that walk. Many of those species, like "bone-eating snot flower" worms, are discovered on the sea floor or under the canopy of Brazilian rain forests.
But others might be in your risotto. Like, right now.
Case in point: Last October, scientists at the the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens were surprised to discover three new species of mushrooms at a grocery store near London, and have recently published their findings.
The mushrooms in question were new species of porcini, a kind of mycological crack for chefs that means "little pigs" in Italian. Biologists Bryn Dentinger and Laura Suz genetically analyzed the contents of a packet of porcini and found 15 species inside. Three of those species have never been named or described until now.
The fact that these previously undiscovered mushrooms were mixed into our food supply goes to show how little even food producers know about biodiversity.
Novel varieties of porcini aren't especially groundbreaking. Scientists estimate that there up to ten million species of fungi currently in existence, with about 1,200 new species added each year. A total of 18 new species of porcini have been discovered since 2000 alone. But the fact that these previously undiscovered mushrooms were mixed into our food supply goes to show how little even food producers know about biodiversity, meaning that we could be eating unidentified fungi all the time.
As the researchers point out, not knowing what we're eating or exporting is at least a little alarming. "The recognition of these species will enable better regulations to improve food safety and to enable countries to adhere to international agreements on exploitation of wildlife," they write.
The mushrooms were the product of Tropical Wholefoods, sold at a Gaia Wholefoods in Twickenham. Like half of all the porcini in Italy, however, they originated in China, which currently exports ungodly amounts of mushrooms at a fraction of the cost of European sources. China itself is the world's largest mushroom exporter and consumer, with Yunnan province—where the new species originated, along with many other varieties of mushrooms—composing more than half of the country's export value.
The sudden appearance of brand-new species probably has less to do with poor inspection and more to do with producers lacking a DNA sequencer to analyze every single fungus that gets harvested.
Attempts at cultivating the mushrooms on a mass scale have failed in the past, so porcini remain foraged, not farmed. (They're mycorrhizal, requiring a host plant—often pine or fir trees—to grow.) Despite their comparatively lower cost, Chinese porcini have a bad rep among cooks as being of inferior quality to European mushrooms, but their price still makes them attractive to consumers who don't know or care about the difference.
But how did heretofore unknown mushrooms end up in the UK in the first place? China's had its share of problems with oversight and safety in its food exports, from a series of staph infections traced to canned mushrooms to the largest foodborne illness outbreak in German history, which was tied to frozen Chinese strawberries. In the case of these mushrooms, though, the sudden appearance of brand-new species probably has less to do with poor inspection and more to do with producers lacking a DNA sequencer to analyze every single fungus that gets harvested.
And, to the non-mycologist at least, the descriptions of the three new species sound virtually identical: "Edible, fleshy mushroom with light- to brown cap, clavate stipe, and a tubular greenish-yellow at maturity." Consumers who don't know the difference between a clavate stipe and, say, a fusiform one likely won't ever be able to tell if what they're eating is a type of life form previously unknown to science.
Just pray that you're not eliminating a species the next time you make stroganoff.