U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station is breaking out its 79-year-old collection of 20,000 fungus cultures – yes, the stuff that grows in dark, damp places – to help create a new 1,000-species fungal directory.
Broader cataloguing of fungi will allow researchers to more effectively study their vast contributions to life and explore other ways to use the organisms.
The “1000 Fungal Genomes” project will involve reading the DNA code of the genomes – inherited genetic information – of two species from every known family of fungi. During the next five years, this approach will greatly expand what is known about the diversity of different types of fungi.
There are an estimated one to 1.5 million species of fungi, with only about 100,000 species named.
Approximately 200 of the 1,000 species that will be sequenced during the project are located at the Northern Research Station’s Center for Forest Mycology Research in Madison, Wisconsin. Scientists began the collection in 1932 and it now includes cultures from 1,600 species of fungi.
“It’s an incredible resource,” said Dan Lindner, a plant pathologist at the research center. “As far as we know, it’s the world’s largest collection of wood-inhabiting fungi. These organisms are so important in so many ways, and we have so much to learn about them.”
Fungi are important to everything from carbon cycling to production of life-saving drugs such as penicillin, cholesterol-lowering statins, and immunosuppressants, which make organ transplants possible. Fungi are also used to make chocolate, beer and specialty cheeses, such as brie and gorgonzola.
Lindner is one of 13 scientists participating in the “1000 Fungal Genomes” project, which also includes Kerry O’Donnell and Todd Ward of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, and scientists from universities in the United States, the Netherlands and France.
The Department of Energy is providing funding for the project through its 2012 Community Sequencing Program.