Professors find funky fungi
October 21, 2009 5:45 PM
Seven new glow-in-the-dark species of mushroom have been discovered by an SF State biology professor and his colleagues, upping his findings to nearly a quarter of all known luminescent fungi.
"We found some that were so bright you could read a book by them," said Prof. Dennis Desjardin, 59, who was able to identify the fungi with the help of colleagues from Puerto Rico, Brazil and Japan, and funding from the National Science Foundation.
Some of them were discovered by Desjardin himself, while others were found by colleagues who sent their mushrooms to the professor for identification. Of seven identified, four were previously undiscovered and three were known fungi that had not been known to glow before. There are now 16 different fungi lineages with known luminescent species.
"It raises more questions that are not yet answered about their evolution," said Desjardin, who is working off two different hypotheses for how this occurred. One idea is that glowing has evolved in fungi 16 different times. However, the one that Desjardin is looking most closely at is the theory that luminescence evolved once and was gradually lost by many species. He aims to look into this question more in a future paper.
"Dennis is an excellent mentor -- one of the best mycologists and teachers," said Brian Perry, co-author of the article describing the new findings, who found one of the newly discovered species in Malaysia. He worked with Desjardin as a graduate student and later as a post-doctorate researcher, and is currently an assistant professor of biology at the University of Hawaii in Hilo.
"Each of the organisms Dr. Desjardin describes is part of the tightly interconnected web that ensures the stability and resilience of our environment," said Michael Goldman, chair of the biology department, in an e-mail.
"Each different form of life can also provide unanticipated metabolic processes that can mean new drugs or new and sustainable sources of energy," he added.
The fungi were discovered in Belize, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Japan, Malaysia and Puerto Rico.
To find these species the field researchers, including Desjardin, would follow a guide into the rain forest they wanted to explore. The group would camp until it was dark and their eyes adjusted to the lack of light. When they did, they would go through the forest looking for anything that was glowing.
"We would turn on our headlamps, check what was glowing and if it was fungi we'd put it into our plastic collecting bin. Then we'd turn off the headlamps and stumble on," Desjardin said.
In January 2009, Thomas Jenkinson accompanied Perry and Desjardin to the Micronesian island of Pohnpei to study luminescent mushrooms. The 26-year-old has been at SF State since 2007 working toward a graduate degree in ecology and systematic biology. He came to the University to work with Desjardin.
"I read a lot of the cool things Dennis was doing while I was a research tech at the University of Minnesota," Jenkinson said. He was invited to come with the two after speaking with Desjardin about doing more fieldwork. Desjardin was able to get extra funding for the research through a colleague in New York.
"There are always more luminescent fungi in the tropics and on this island there were a ton. It was awesome," Jenkinson said.
Desjardin and his colleagues' findings can be found online in Mycologia, a leading scientific journal on fungi. It will appear in print in the March/April 2010 issue. Articles are archived at their Web site: http://www.mycologia.org/
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