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Exploring Space via Astromycology: A Report on the CIFAR Programs Earth 4D and Fungal Kingdom Inaugural Joint Meeting


"Fungi on Mars!": a popular news heading that piques public interest and makes scientists' blood boil. While such a statement is laden with misinformation and light on evidence, the search for past and present extraterrestrial life is an ongoing scientific effort. Moreover, it is one that is increasingly gaining momentum with the recent collection of martian rock cores from Jezero Crater by NASA's Perseverance rover. Despite the increasingly sophisticated approaches guiding the search for microbial life on other planets, fungi remain relatively underexplored compared to their bacterial counterparts, highlighting a gap between the astrobiological and fungal research communities. Through a meeting in April 2021, the CIFAR Earth 4D and Fungal Kingdom research programs worked to bridge this divide by uniting experts in each field. CIFAR is a Canadian-based global research organization that convenes researchers across disciplines to address important questions facing science and humanity. The CIFAR Earth 4D: Subsurface Science & Exploration and Fungal Kingdom: Threats & Opportunities research programs were launched by CIFAR in July 2019, each made up of approximately two dozen international researchers who are experts in their fields. The Earth 4D program, led by co-directors John Mustard (Brown University, USA) and Barbara Sherwood Lollar (University of Toronto, Canada), aims to understand the complex chemical, physical, and biological interactions that occur within and between Earth's surface and subsurface to explore questions on the evolution of planets and life. The Fungal Kingdom program, led by co-directors Leah Cowen (University of Toronto, Canada) and Joseph Heitman (Duke University, USA), seeks to tackle the most pressing threats fungi pose to human health, agriculture, and biodiversity and to harness their extraordinary potential. The programs met to explore areas for synergy within four major themes: (1) the origins of life; (2) the evolution and diversification of life; (3) life in diverse and extreme environments; and (4) extinction: lessons learned and threats. This report covers the research discussed during the meeting across these four themes.

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