Campus fungal research mushrooming

A crew of mycologists and a new student club have rejuvenated fungal enthusiasm.

Parker Lemke

On a wooded slope of the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, rows of rotting logs and mulch patches form an unusual garden.

Pulling off a tarp and lifting the log underneath, Mycology Club members Gerry Presley and Jason Oliver pointed to the mushrooms poking out from the wood.

“You usually wait about a year for the fungus to colonize the logs,” Oliver said, a bioproducts and biosystems engineering doctoral student.

Growing edible mushrooms has been just one of the fungus-focused group’s activities since the two founded it in 2012 to meet a surge in fungi studies across the University, said Presley, a fellow doctoral student and the club’s president.

Interest in fungus has recently risen due to the organisms’ wide range of impacts — from decomposing waste or freeing nutrients for plant growth to damaging crops and playing a role in drug development and climate change studies, said plant biology associate professor Peter Kennedy.

 “There are not many schools … even at our size, that [have] as many research-active mycologists as we currently have,” he said. “This is a special place to study fungi.”

Kennedy said he joined a core group of mycologists in 2013 when the University recruited him in a fungal evolution cluster hire, which is a hiring strategy that aims to bring more expertise in particular fields to the school.

And around that time, the University’s Bell Museum of Natural History also hired a new official fungi curator charged with looking after its 100,000  specimens, said plant biology professor emeritus David McLaughlin.

“There was sort of a lull for a while,” Oliver said. “This cluster hire is slowly increasing the number of fungal-focused courses being taught.”

By increasing its focus on the often-microscopic fungi, Kennedy said the University made a smart investment.

“It allows us basically to capitalize on a group of organisms that have amazingly diverse metabolisms,” he said, adding that ongoing discussions are exploring ways to offer more mycology courses and the possibility of creating a fungal-related minor.

The roots of fungal research

McLaughlin began studying fungi at the University in 1969.

He said the way scientists look at and understand the organisms has changed a great deal, largely due to genetic research.

“They were considered plants for a long time,” McLaughlin said. “They’re actually more closely related to us than they are to plants.”

Now, associate pediatrics professor Cheryl Gale is taking the study of fungi inside the human body.

She is studying one fungus in particular, Candida albicans, which can cause infections in infants.

“Once it gets into their bloodstream, it can pretty much go anywhere in the body and causes very serious infections that are life-threatening,” Gates said.

She said the mortality rate for such systematic fungal infections in premature infants falls between 20 and 40 percent.

Gates said she wants to better understand how fungal communities form and change over time in infant intestinal tracts.

“There is a great need for research to better understand how fungi cause disease so that we can develop better therapies,” Gates said.

Some fungal research, like Kennedy’s, focuses on its role in the health of forest ecosystems.

This summer, he received  the Arthur Henry Reginald Buller Medal, which is an award given to young fungal researchers every four years from the International Mycology Association.

“I hope to contribute for as many years as I can,” Kennedy said.

McLaughlin is now retired after almost 45 years of conducting his own research. He still continues his work, however, with the Assembling the Fungal Tree of Life project.

AFTL is striving to expand its understanding of fungal diversity. The project estimates that scientists have described only 80,000 of the world’s roughly 1.5 million fungi.

Kennedy said the organisms’ simplicity and small size, along with their cryptic and quick underground lifecycles, make fungi challenging to identify.

Although field work has taken him as far away as Mexico, Borneo and New Zealand, Kennedy said he’s also made discoveries close to home.

Last month, Kennedy said he joined a team of 65 professional mycologists and mycology students on a fungus-gathering foray about 35 miles from campus at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.

“We probably added close to 100 new species to the list of fungi that were known just in one weekend,” he said.

Planting fungal seeds across an institution

Without a central department to bring together campus fungal enthusiasts, Presley said the Mycology Club quickly found an audience.

“The time was right to get a student organization together,” he said.

Oliver and Presley said their fungal biology club’s mix of events, which include journal discussions, cultivation workshops and outdoor sample collections, cater to scholars across University departments, including plant biology and plant pathology.

Presley said amateur fungal enthusiasts and retirees also have found their way into the mix.

“When we promote an activity or seminar, we kind of are planting that seed in all these different departments,” Oliver said.

The group’s popularity reflects a campus interest in the field, said Jonathan Schilling, a fungal biology professor who serves as the two club founders’ adviser.

“It’s pretty much an indicator that there are a lot of people here that are hungry for something like that,” he said.