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UF/IFAS team part of NSF effort to study least understood, oldest fungi

 Spinellus fusiger shown growing on the mushroom Mycena capillaripes. Photograph by Darvin DeShazer.

 

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – A University of Florida team is part of a group of scientists from 11 institutions that will tackle some very ancient history as part of a National Science Foundation-funded project to understand the evolution of zygomycetes, fungi thought to be among the first terrestrial organisms.

The Zygomycete Geneaology of Life, ZyGoLife for short, is a $2.5 million collaborative research project.

Some of the most commonly known zygomycetes include fast-growing molds that colonize bread and fruits, but zygomycete fungi actually play a number of key ecological roles. Some can attack insects and are being investigated as biological control agents for some insect pests.

Some zygomycetes are symbiotic partners of plant roots; they are believed to be among the first organisms to colonize land and are widely credited with helping facilitate the evolution of land plants. Zygomycetes are also used in a number of industrial processes, such as organic acid production and the fermentation of foods, including tempeh and soy sauce.

They are important to human health and consequently, expanding expertise on the fungi is key for medicine and safe food production. Several species are opportunistic human pathogens and can cause problematic infections.

Because the fungi are soft-bodied, scientists attempting to learn about their evolution don’t have the benefit that many of their peers who study ancient plants and animals do: There are very few fungal fossils available to examine.

“The molecular data have been the main thing we’ve been able to use to accurately reconstruct who’s related to whom and when they might have diversified,” said Matthew Smith, an assistant professor in plant pathology and part of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences faculty.

Smith is a co-principal ZyGoLife investigator and will lead UF’s role in the project. Gerald Benny, a longtime UF courtesy research professor who has studied zygomycete fungi for more than 40 years, is an integral part of the UF team who will provide both key samples and expertise.

ZyGoLife scientists will use bioimaging, genome-sequencing analysis, metagenomics, discovery and description of zygomycete fossils and other tools to create a more complete picture of these understudied fungi. Overall, the project will add to the body of knowledge available for schools and the general public.

“The impacts of this research will be wide-ranging, from industrial biotechnology to human health to basic evolution and biodiversity,” Smith said.

Besides UF, the other institutions include the University of California at Riverside, Oregon State University, University of Michigan, Arizona State University, University of British Columbia, University of Kansas, Boise State University, Duke University, University of Ottowa and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

Contacts

Writer:  Mickie Anderson, 352-273-3566, mickiea@ufl.edu

Source: Matthew Smith, 352-273-2837, trufflesmith@ufl.edu

Photo: Spinellus fusiger shown growing on the mushroom Mycena capillaripes. Photograph by Darvin DeShazer.