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CU Natural History Collections

Cornell Plant Pathology Herbarium

    The Cornell Plant Pathology Herbarium (CUP) is a collection of preserved fungi and the various organisms that cause plant diseases.  Altogether, CUP houses more than 400,000 specimens. Its fungal specimens alone comprise the fourth or fifth largest mycological collection in North America.  This repository of diversity is a tremendous resource for mycologists (scientists who study fungi)--all the more so because of our limited knowledge of the diversity and the taxonomy of this kingdom: it is estimated that over 90% of fungal species have not yet been named or described.  CUP is also a valuable source of information about plant pathogens, which cause billions of dollars of agricultural losses annually.  While fungal pathogens are the biggest culprits, the Herbarium also archives other agents of plant disease including nematodes, bacteria, and viruses.  In serving both mycologists and plant pathologists, CUP reflects the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ long term commitment to biological research, and to the application and extension of that research to the agricultural community.

What’s the big deal about fungi?

Plant pathology is not the only interface between people and fungi.  In fact, we live in intimate association with many different fungal species.  [photo with caption: There’s a fungus among us.]  The mutualistic relationship between humans and the yeasts that we cultivate to make bread, beer, and wine is one example.  (Yeasts are single-celled fungi; others, such as mushrooms and molds, are multicellular.)  In other cases, fungi may be unwelcome guests.  Take molds: they add a distinctive flavor to some types of cheese, and are the sources of many useful biochemicals like anti-cholesterol drugs, vitamins, and citric acid.  Other molds have negative impacts when they contaminate our foods, our homes, and our bodies (for example, the fungal infection commonly known as athlete’s foot).  
Putting aside these most immediate human concerns, mycology is crucial to an understanding of ecology.  Fungi are a critical link in ecosystems because they decompose dead animal and plant material.  And while some fungi cause plant disease and death, others help plants survive: almost all plants rely on mycorrhizal fungi that colonize their roots to help them efficiently extract nutrients from the soil.
Fungi have proved fascinating enough to spark the interests of generations of mycologists at Cornell.  The strengths of the collection naturally reflect the research interests of past and present researchers in the department of Plant Pathology.  Herbert H. Whetzel was the first chair of the department (the first of its kind in North America) and studied discomycetes (cup fungi).  Others followed suit, and cup fungi remain one of the strengths of the collection.  In some cases, private collections are maintained as separate entities within the herbarium.  For example, George F. Atkinson, a noted Cornell mycologist and professor in the early 1900s, collected and described many species of mushrooms; his specimens make up a special collection at CUP.  Over the last century, Cornell has trained more professional mycologists than any other North American institution.

More about CUP:

    The Cornell Plant Pathology Herbarium moved into renovated facilities in 2007.  Although these collections are not open to the public, you can see some of the Herbarium’s most fascinating specimens online; in addition to preserved specimens, CUP holds about 60,000 photographs, some of which can be accessed here [link].  Some photographs document specimens in the collection, while others show historical practices dating back to the late 1800s, or portraits of professors and researchers in plant pathology and mycology.  Many images of tropical agriculture and traditional farming practices across the world can be found in “Smokin’ Doc Thurston’s Greatest Hits,” a collection of 2500 photos taken by Professor Emeritus Dr. H. David Thurston.    
    CUP specimens are regularly loaned to scientists and students conducting research.  About 7,000 of CUP’s specimens are type specimens.  This means that they were the first of their kind to be described and serve as the definitive “name holder” or reference for a species.  Many CUP records have been databased, and while this is not yet a comprehensive listing, specimens can be searched on CUP’s website.