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Model of a modest mushroom expert

POPULAR varieties of the humble mushroom are almost household names ?think of the champignon, the shiitake, the button and even the celebrated truffle. It's believed that the first reliable evidence of mushroom consumption can be traced back to several hundred years BC in China.

A very prominent champion of the champignon and the many members of its fungi family is the British scientist, Professor John Buswell, who has been working at the Shanghai Academy of Agricultural Sciences (SAAS) since 2003. "Working?is a bit of an understatement because in a very short time he seems to have made some remarkable achievements.

So much so, that Buswell, a visiting professor at the academy's Institute of Edible Fungi, has been honored not once, but twice, for his contributions to China. The Shanghai Municipal Government has conferred two awards on Professor Buswell: the Magnolia Award in 2007 and the Shanghai Science and Technology Award for International Cooperation last month.

A native of Leicester aged in his mid-60s, Buswell is self-effacing almost to an extreme about his awards. He regards the most recent as an "unexpected honor?which "means a great deal to him?but it is quickly clear that he sees it as a reflection of the people he works with rather than himself.

It was announced while he was in Turkey ?"I do a bit of work for the European Commission??and even at the time of this interview last week he remained unclear as to why he had been honored.

This lack of pretension about much of what he has achieved is countered by the laudatory content of a "major contributions?submission for the award which cites his "many contributions to international cooperation and exchange activities and training young scientists at the SAAS.?

A globally recognized expert in edible and medicinal fungi research, it said he had contributed significantly to international communication between the Shanghai academy and overseas institutions, to the recognition of its research work by academic peers overseas, and to academic training of younger researchers and students.

"They seem reasonably pleased with what I've done, but for me it's part of the job,?Buswell said.

"I don't want to overstate what I've done because it's all down to joint effort and expertise. The inherent talent and ability is here. And, they're very strong in cultivation and breeding of mushrooms, but not so strong in other areas such as physiology and biochemistry, which I am interested in.

"And one of their lesser strengths was in international exposure. They're doing good work here, not only in Shanghai, but in China as a whole, and it not recognized, simply because they don't advertise or publicize it, mainly because of the language.

"All the research is published mainly in Chinese journals without reaching other parts of the world. So part of my remit was to raise the international profile of the institute and the academy as a whole.

"Consequently he has become a strong advocate for not only the institute and those on board, but by association the country's mushroom industry as a whole.

"There's a bit of 'needle?between the Chinese and Japanese over the origins of many of these forms of mushrooms, like shiitake, for instance,?he expanded.

"In Chinese, it's called xianggu and they claim it was first cultivated in Zhejiang Province's Chiyuan County where there's a temple for a xianggu god.

"The Chinese would say they were the first to artificially cultivate the mushroom, and there's a lot of evidence to support that, but the Japanese would claim otherwise.?

Buswell is very conscious of the mushroom's long lineage back many thousands of years in Chinese culture.

"If you look at many of the old Chinese paintings, you'll often see this little mushroom that's always been associated with longevity in Chinese folklore and that goes back to way before BC times,?he said.

Science is taking more notice of a lot of lore that was based on empirical observations, he added.

"The use of mushrooms for health reasons in Chinese folklore ?such as one being good for your stomach, another good for the liver, good for this, or that ?is benefiting from the application of modern scientific techniques,?he said.

"So they're now isolating elements from mushrooms whose benefits were recognized thousands of years ago by the Chinese.?

The academy's work supports a huge industry. China is the world's biggest producer of edible mushrooms, cultivating about 70 percent of a market worth an estimated US$47 billion.

"In the West, mushroom growing is capital intensive, done in huge hangars and very automated, from composting to seeding beds and harvesting,?he said.

"Methods in China, though, are crude but very effective, and not capital intensive. Different regions have different types of mushrooms, some that grow on artificial logs in acres of fields, others in cotton waste or on bamboo beds.?

Buswell has enormous respect for the Chinese mushroom farmer. "The varieties are being expanded all the time because the growers are very clever and adept at domesticating new species from the wild.

"The most recent one, bailinggu, was found in the 1980s and is becoming a major cultivated mushroom. It's delicious and sometimes called 'the abalone mushroom?because of its taste.?

During his time in Shanghai, the academy has hosted significant international conferences and more are planned. Not only has its profile been raised internationally but leading researchers and students have benefited by the exposure, all of which has elevated China's importance in the field.

But suggest that he might have played a role in all of this and Buswell will have none of it. "There's been a lot of interest about what China's doing so there's more inquiry and therefore more impetus for response from within China,?he said.

"The talent is already here, but they haven't had the networking opportunities. It's purely fortuitous that I worked overseas.

"A combination of these different factors are all coming into play at a particular time. I just happen to be here to help in a small way and I can point people in the right direction,?he insisted.

Yeah, right!


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