Breyten van der Merwe is a Stellenbosch student doing BSc Hons (Microbiology), who by chance discovered a new species of mushroom, now named Hericium ophelieae.
“I was walking with my family in a forest in Knysna, and thought that it was strange
for this mushroom to be growing on an indigenous tree,” said van der Merwe.
Van der Merwe says that African mushrooms are “understudied and mostly undescribed”, and that there is a “big gap for research”. This is due to the complexity of fungal studies, and lack of funding in this field of research. Studying mushrooms is “an important part of science because they are potential biofactories for novel compounds” says Van der Merwe, adding that “the medicinal genus Hericium that is well studied has shown promise in cancer-treating properties, as well as for neuropsychological damage”.
This was a chance discovery, and due to the lack of funding and interest in fungal research in South Africa, the species could have been lost entirely if Van der Merwe had not crossed paths with it. This species grows only on specific indigenous trees, which are threatened with deforestation.
“As host trees decrease, so do the mushrooms, and so we lose the possibility to procure a host of medicines that could help many people,” said van der Merwe.
As ophelieae is the first endemic Hericium species to be described from Southern Africa, and the second to be described from Africa, the discovery is worth celebration. Van der Merwe hopes
to describe four more species this year, as well as continue to research the medicinal properties of Hericium ophelieae.