- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

ITHACA, N.Y. (AP) - An Ivy League school is giving China back its treasured mushrooms.

Shu Chun Teng traveled halfway around the world on a scholarship to study mycology at Cornell University in 1923. He left five years later with a knowledge of fungi unequaled in China, then spent the next decade traveling on horseback gathering up molds, lichens, yeasts, rusts and morels in the forests, fields and marshes of his homeland.

During the Japanese invasion in 1937, Teng arranged for his best specimens to be removed from a national botany institute he directed in Nanking to save them from destruction. During World War II, they were smuggled by ox cart to Indochina and then by sea to the United States, and 2,278 of the specimen packets ended up at Teng’s alma mater.

At Cornell’s initiative, the university is dividing up and sharing its Fungi of China Collection with the Academy of Sciences in Beijing to help advance the exploration of fungal species. Only an estimated 6 percent of those believed to exist in the world have been recorded.

In a repatriation ceremony Monday, Cornell President David Skorton presented a high-level Chinese delegation with a rare mushroom called Lentinus tigrinus, reaffirming the university’s desire to share a collection he said it “has held in safekeeping for the global scientific community since 1940.”

Some 1,700 specimens will be delivered to China in the fall, including 57 considered irreplaceable. Cornell will retain fungi that can’t be divided, but make them available to scholars.

More than 70 years after their discovery, “examples of this kind almost do not exist in China, which makes this collection invaluable (for) the study of the variety, distribution and evolution of Chinese fungi,” said delegation leader Liu Yandong. “On behalf of the Chinese government, I would like to say a big thank you to Cornell University.”

Kathie Hodge, the Cornell herbarium’s director, said the fungi are invariably tiny _ “just dried up leaves, most of them, or pieces of wood with a little dot of them. To an average person, they look like something you would sweep off your kitchen floor. But under the microscope they’re beautiful and exciting and incredibly diverse.”

“I think it’s really important to understand the diversity of life on Earth and we are so far from being able to do that right now,” she said. “And fungi are one of the last great frontiers of biology.”

During his travels to all corners of China, Teng made meticulous notes and drawings of the fungi he found _ and frequently mailed duplicates to Cornell. He returned to teaching after the war, restored a national mycology laboratory and published a 1963 book that remains an indispensable source of information on his country’s fungi in the first half of the 20th century.

At the start of the devastating Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Teng was tagged as a “counterrevolutionary academic authority.” Discharged from his lab, he was subjected to daily beatings and mental persecution that ruined his health and career, according to the science academy. He died in 1970 at age 67.

Years later, his family managed to recover his confiscated manuscripts. His daughter, Rosaline Deng, worked with a Cornell professor of mycology, Richard Korf, to complete and publish “The Fungi of China” in 1996.

Transferring the fungi “is our decision,” said the 83-year-old Korf, who taught at Cornell until 1998. “The whole reason really is that it makes scientific sense,” especially with the warming of U.S.-China ties over the last 30 years. “It’s clear we are cooperating in ways we never knew we could.”

Another impulse, he said, is “I had a brilliant student, Wen-Ying Zhuang, come to work with me from China in the 1980s and get her Ph.D. She became a major figure in the Chinese mycological field. She certainly pressed me on how important it would be for Chinese scientists to be able to easily access those specimens. Many of the scientists didn’t even know we had them.”

As for Teng’s trove, “there are no duplicates of many of them left in China _ the Japanese did destroy a lot of the herbaria,” Korf said. “It gives you some concept of what the flora and so forth were like in these places, many of which have changed immensely or disappeared. The function of these collections is to document the past and allow you to compare what’s there now.”

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