19 Feb 2012, Posted by Annie Wang in News, 0 Comments
Special to The Chronicle
Duke is known for its renowned faculty and the work they do in their respective niches of academia. One such professor, Rytas J. Vilgalys, recently had a fungus named after him for his contribution to the science world. The Chronicle’s Annie Wang asked him about his achievement.
The Chronicle: Congratulations on getting a fungus named after you! How and when did you first find this species?
Rytas J Vilgalys: We were on a collecting trip in central Mexico with a team of fungus experts investigating biodiversity of truffle species. This is part of our NSF-sponsored research with my colleague Gregory Bonito who is a former student (now a postdoc) in my lab. The new lichen species was growing in moist soil along one of the trails near the town of Tlaxcala. We didn’t know it was a new species then, but later learned this when a visiting grad student (Jessie Uehling) came to work with one of my postdocs (Matt Smith). They sequenced DNA from my specimen and realized it was a new species of lichen fungus. Lichens are fungi that grow symbiotically with algae, so this led Jessie to collaborate with Brendan Hodkinson (grad student in Francois Lutzoni’s lab that studies lichenized fungi). They didn’t even tell me about their discovery until after their paper was accepted for publication. Those finks!
TC: What is the significance of this discovery?
RJV: As species discovery goes, it is probably not that dramatic. Of the estimated 1.5 million species of fungi in the world, less than 5% have been formally described by taxonomists. One novel aspect of their study was that this particular genus of lichen mushroom (Lepidostroma) was only recently discovered from Europe, and these were the first collections from the new world. These lichens are pretty small fungi, however, and so it is likely that they are often overlooked in favor of ‘larger more charismatic’ mushrooms.
TC: How did you first become interested in studying fungi?
RJV: When I was young, my Lithuanian grandmother used to take us out in the forest to look for edible mushrooms. Most Lithuanians are fond of edible fungi, so I guess mycology, the study of fungi, is in my blood. Later in college, I become interested in evolutionary biology of fungi, and was able to land a faculty position where I could work full time on mushrooms. Today there are about a dozen laboratories studying fungal genetics at Duke, and Duke is one of the world’s leading universities for mycology.
TC: What is one myth about fungi that you would like to correct?
RJV: There are many myths and lots of bad press about fungi, all of it underserved. For example, of the 10,000 plus species of fungi that produce mushrooms, only a handful is edible, but even fewer are actually poisonous. Most people don’t realize all of the beneficial roles played by fungi in the environment.
TC: What is the most fascinating fieldwork you have done?
RJV: I’ve had many great opportunities to collect fungi in many parts of the world, most notably in New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea.
TC: One of your research interests is molecular evolution in fungi. Can you give a quick explanation as to what that entails?
RJV: Our lab is very active in the field of fungal molecular systematics- using DNA sequences to infer the evolutionary history (phylogeny) of fungi. Our lab was one of several teams that contributed to the recent NSF project to determine the phylogeny for the Kingdom Fungi; another Duke lab group that participated is Dr. Francois Lutzoni’s lab, which studies lichenized fungi.
TC: Any advice to an aspiring biologist?
RJV: Fungi are everywhere around us and every biology student needs to know some fungal biology!