In October 2013, two mycologists (mushroom scientists) at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London discovered three new edible mushrooms—all at their local grocery store. This month, the two published their full findings in a paper in the journal PeerJ.

The scientists, Bryn Dentinger and Laura Martinez-Suz, simply wanted to buy some dried porcini mushrooms as an ingredient for their dinner. We have to ask: who goes to the grocery store expecting to make a scientific discovery, let alone three?

More importantly, how did these mushrooms end up in the laboratory instead of in a homemade risotto? The package of mushrooms originated in China, which led Dentinger and Martinez-Suz to ask some questions.

One important thing they knew is that “porcini” are not one specific species of mushroom. CBC Science columnist Torah Kachur says, [pullquote]”[porcini is] a gastronomical label more than it is scientific. What the Italians originally called porcinis were this unique flavor of nutty type of mushroom.” [/pullquote]

As the scientists explain in their paper, porcini are only harvested through wild foraging—all attempts at commercial farming have failed. Since 1973, China has been exporting mushrooms to Europe. Over half of the dried porcini in Italy are now of Chinese origin. 

Knowing all the above information, Dentinger and Martinez-Suz hypothesized that there were multiple species of mushroom in that single packet that they bought at the grocery store.

Barcoding steps Web

Photo: African Center for DNA Barcoding

One of the tools they used to quickly identify 15 samples from their package was DNA Barcoding, which samples a very short genetic sequence of a biological specimen to identify it. Simply using visual cues (“morphological keys”) to identify species can occasionally lead to error, but DNA doesn’t lie.

Through their testing, Dentinger and Martinez-Suz quickly realized that they had three previously-unidentified species on their hands.

As Kachur explains, porcini mushrooms tend to come from the mushroom family known as boletes. Instead of the gills you’re used to seeing under the caps of mushrooms like portabella, boletes have tubes. Kachur also adds,


“Even though we don’t necessarily know those species, all of them are certainly safe for consumption.”


So do these new species have names yet? Dentinger and Martinez-Suz published their names in October 2013. You’re looking at Boletus bainiugan, Boletus meiweiniuganjun, and Boletus shiyong.

Most importantly of all, how do they taste? Kachur says that there are distinct differences in the tastes of different boletes. Unfortunately, no specifics about the flavor characteristics of these three have been given.

We’d totally volunteer to taste them in the name of science and lunch.

[via CBC News, PeerJ, CBC Homestretch (audio)]