A Valuable Human Symbiont
Bryn Dentinger, Associate Professor of Biology, focuses his research on fungal diversity and coevolution. He also is the Curator of Mycology at the Natural History Museum of Utah where he has established a fungus collection already numbering about 500 specimens. His goal is to build a permanent collection with thousands of specimens to document fungi in Utah and worldwide.
“Fungi are fundamental agents in the environment with enormous impact on ecosystem processes and human well-being,” says Dentinger. “In fact, fungi are the primary agent of decay, ubiquitous symbionts of plants and animals – including humans – and the source of important medicines and enzymes in industry,” says Dentinger.
Familiar fungi include molds, yeasts, and mushrooms. Another noticeable example is lichens, which are symbioses between fungi and algae.
Fungi are hyper diverse, and thrive in nearly every environment on Earth, yet scientists have documented only a small fraction of them.
“Fungi live from the poles to the equator, on land and in water – both fresh water and salt water – and in the air and underground,” says Dentinger.
Current estimates of fungal diversity range from two- to four-million species. Scientists have documented about 100,000 species, and studies of environmental DNA or systematic surveys in under documented regions regularly turn up new taxa at many ranks, including new phyla.
“It is generally agreed among the mycological community that about 90% of fungi remain to be documented and described,” says Dentinger.
Dentinger’s lab studies fungal diversity using collections-based research, integrating fieldwork and molecular data to discover and understand the spectacular and often strange world of fungi.
He employs a technician, three graduate students and a dynamic group of undergraduates in his program.
“We routinely use DNA barcoding to identify fungi collected from all over the world. More recently, genome sequencing has become standard practice for phylogenetic inference, metagenomic discovery in complex samples, and comparative approaches to elucidate natural product biosynthesis and genome evolution,” says Dentinger.
Dentinger has five major research projects underway around the world. The most recent is an NSF-funded study in the Guineo-Congolian rainforest of tropical Africa where Dentinger and his colleagues have already described six new species and one new genus of mushrooms. For details, see: http://tropicalfungi.org/.