Science Teacher Leadership Program, Uncategorized

Fungal Interactions

Today I attended a lunchtime seminar at Lincoln University by two visiting researchers from the USA: Professor Jim Trappe and Dr Todd Elliott.  Prof Trappe is a renowned mycorrhizal ecologist, and Dr Elliott is toted as a “world traveler, naturalist, photographer, species discoverer, artist and primitive skills trainer”. Whatever that last attribute means.

Dr Elliott talked about some of the potential applications of fungi. An example is the two main types of rot in wood caused by fungi: brown rot and white rot. Brown rot fungi consume cellulose, leaving the lignin behind. The tree material shrinks and forms cubicle shapes (image, below right). White rot destroys the lignin, leaving the cellulose behind and the remaining material appears white (image, below left). This has implications for the potential use of this fungus, as lignin is normally very difficult to break down.

Some rather gruesome photos of entomophathogenic fungi, those that inhabit insects. They modify the behaviour of their hosts and the fungal fruiting body bursts out of the insect’s body. Strangely enough, not all these explosions of fungal mayhem kill the host straight away. Some parasitic fungi rely on their host to move around with their fruit in order to disperse their spores over a wider area. Enjoy these delightful examples:

An example of such a fungus is Cordyceps sinensis, which is used as a dietary supplement. The active ingredient, Cordycepin, has been shown to boost white blood cell count amongst other things. This compound promises to have many applications in western medicine.  People have now begun to look at other Cordyceps species for medicinal compounds. An example of a cultural use of one such member of the Genus is in traditional Maori tattooing. Elaphocordyceps subsessilis contains cyclosporine, an immunosuppressant, and can be found parasitising scarab beetle larvae (see image below).image

Termitomyces form association with termites, who eat the spores and transfer them to new host plants via migrating queen termites. The fruiting bodies are an important food in Africa and Asia. Some species of Termitomyces are the largest cap-and-stem mushrooms in the world.

According to Prof. Trappe, New Zealand is home to some of the worlds most colourful truffles and pouch fungi—fungi whose fruiting bodies are enclosed (stalkless and underground in truffles). These include Cortinarius spp., and Leratiomyces.

Chamonixia pachydermis
Chamonixia pachydermis, a very common species in NZ, usually only partly buried. Photo by Rod Morris

Not much is known about the associations between birds and fungi. In Australia, Satin Bowerbirds have been found to decorate their bowers with blewit mushrooms as they love blue, grey and white colours. So, this native bird is now distributing a non-native fungi—what ecological implications are there? Dr Elliott summarises by saying that there appears to be not much research on bird-fungi interactions, and to keep an eye out for any that we might observe.

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