Biodiversity may be a new word for many Thai people. The importance of biodiversity and maintenance of the balance of ecosystems first began to be discussed in Thailand around 3-4 years ago, among the media and certain other groups. Studies show that around 7,000 species of plants, 15,000 species of animals and 6,000 species of micro-organisms - a figure that is anticipated to rise to some 500,000 species, are valuable to the development of economy, society, environment and quality of life of Thai people.
Species that are not yet known to science, quite possibly a very large number, also represent important genetic resources that could potentially be developed for the production of medicines, foods and other products of use to humans.
The destruction of forests and pollution of water sources, combined with the lack of knowledge of Thailand’s bioresources, is gradually eroding the country’s genetic resources and causing a serious loss of biodiversity in the country. This urgent situation has provided the impetus for a major collaborative research study into the management of biodiversity as well as systematic environment conservation.
Since 2011, agencies under the Ministry of Science and Technology, including the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), the National Science Museum (NSM) and the Thailand Institute of Scientific and Technological Research (TISTR), have jointly launched a project to build a database of information on biodiversity research and the use of biological resources called Thai2BIO (Thai Science Bioresources and Biotechnology), which contains as many as 94,701 entries concerning information on biomaterials derived from animals, microbes and plants. The database can serve to strengthen research work on biodiversity and promote the effective and beneficial application of research. Research collated in the Thai2BIO database is published via www.thai2bio.net.
Researchers of the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC), a member of NSTDA, have recognized the importance and beneficial uses of biodiversity and have undertaken research and national surveys on fungi, documenting more than 2,500 species over a period of 20 years. Fungi are an extremely diverse and genetically important group capable of producing secondary metabolites that show potential in numerous pharmaceutical applications. The latest research breakthrough has been the discovery of new bioactive compounds from the small mushroom Mycena pruinosoviscida, a fungal species that glows in the dark. The substances extracted from this fungus are called Mycenadiols A-D, discovered for the first time in the world, which are capable of inhibiting the growth of tumourous cells as well as mycobacteria, bacteria and certain plant-pathogenic fungi. Research into the cultivation of mushroom could also help farmers. The spawn production technique for Boletus mushroom has been developed in the laboratory. The technique has been transferred to farmers in Baan Samruen, Ayutthaya province, which helps offset the shortage of Boletus spawn caused by flooding in the area. This would boost incomes and improve living conditions in the area.
Researchers at BIOTEC have published the results of several surveys of insect-pathogenic fungi in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries across the country over a period of over 20 years. Fungi are vital to the sustenance of life in ecosystems but certain species cause disease in small animals such as insects. These insect pathogens are found naturally in soil and leaf litter, and on the surfaces of leaves in the forest. The insect-pathogenic fungi can be found in temperate and tropical areas of the world, with notably greater diversity in tropical areas.
Dr. Jennifer Luangsa-ard, Head of BIOTEC Microbe Interaction Laboratory, said that the study of biodiversity is essential, since Thailand is one of the most important storehouses of insect-pathogenic fungi in the world. Research has shown that some species of pathogenic fungi have the ability to generate biologically active substances, such as Hirsutella nivea, which infects plant hopper and can produce substances called Hirsutellones that has an anti-TB activity. Some insect pathogens, such as Beauveria bassiana, can be used effectively in the biological control of insect pests, enabling farmers to lower their use of agricultural chemicals pesticide, which is better for ecosystems and the environment.
“In the 20 years that we have been researching this topic we have discovered more than 400 species of insect-pathogenic fungi in Thailand including 24 new species, which can be found from sea level to the highest points in the country,” she said. “These fungi produce mycelium that can penetrate the body of insects enabling the fungi to feed on the insect. The fungi develop inside the insect and eventually spores burst out to spread and reproduce. One interesting insect-pathogenic fungus is “Waan Jakkajan” that appears in the news a few years ago. It is in fact an ordinary cicada with the pathogenic fungus growing on top.”
Dr. Supawadee Ingsriswang, Head of BIOTEC Information Systems, added that information and knowledge obtained from the research are important to the study of biodiversity and taxonomy in fungi.
“BIOTEC/NSTDA has previously published this information via the Atlas of Fungi, however this information source has its limitations,” she said. “Increasing the channels available makes it easier and more convenient for students, researchers and other interested persons to access this information, so we have joined hands with the research team of Microbe Interaction Laboratory to develop a smart phone application called ‘Thai-Fungi’ for people to learn about the diversity of fungi in Thailand. Currently we have uploaded information on more than 100 species of insect-pathogenic fungi found in Thailand into the Thai-Fungi app, including photo, the scientific name and prominent features, and in future we expect to add information on more species. Users of the app are also able to upload photos of insect-pathogenic fungi that they have encountered for the researchers to identify,” she added.
The Thai-Fungi app can be downloaded from the App Store and Google Play Store.
Information on insect-pathogenic fungi and other interesting organisms found and studied by Thai researchers, including firefly, hornbill, mushroom, etc. are now on display in the “Thailand Biodiversity Exhibition” in Hall A of the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center (QSNCC) from now until 8 August 2014. The exhibition is open to public for free.
For further information, please contact National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, 113, Thailand Science Park, Phaholyothin Road, Klong Neung District.