Martin Bidartondo discovered mycology as a teenager in his native Uruguay when he saw an illustration of a root covered with fungi in a botany book. "I thought, 'That's it--that is the coolest thing on the planet,' " Bidartondo says. Now age 35, Bidartondo works at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the United Kingdom, where he is a specialist in mycorrhizal fungi--the very same kind that got him hooked.
Mycology--the study of fungi--is often just a chapter in high school biology textbooks, and it's a specialist field even at universities. That means it's not an easy field to enter, as Bidartondo discovered. First, he studied biology with a chemistry minor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Then he started searching for graduate schools with scientists who studied fungi. That reduced the pool of grad-school candidates dramatically: "It was not very difficult because there were not many people working in the area," he says. He decided to do his Ph.D. at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, environmental science department. There, he researched the coevolution of plants and fungi.
Bidartondo moved to Kew in July 2004 after finishing his research at UC Berkeley. That's where he spends most of his time, though he has a joint appointment with Imperial College London, which is meant to seed a research partnership in biodiversity between the two institutions. At Imperial, Bidartondo gives postgraduate lectures on fungi, ecology, and conservation, whereas at Kew, he does research related to his graduate work, studying the coevolution of plants and fungi. Bidartondo is happy with the situation, he says, because "I get to experience two environments with very different ways of working."
Mycologists such as Bidartondo are a rare breed, and the demand for fungi scientists is relatively small. At the same time, there seems to be a shortage of qualified people to fill those few mycology jobs. But with perseverance and a love for fungi, mycologists can find work in many areas, from academic research to applied agriculture.
Kew's mission in mycology is to increase knowledge about fungi by identifying and describing new families, genera, and species in the United Kingdom and overseas. That's a tall order for such a small department, argues Brian Spooner, head of Kew's mycology department. Excluding Bidartondo, who works mostly in molecular ecology, Kew has three staff mycologists dedicated to identifying new species and caring for the fungi collection at Kew's herbarium. This is "barely enough to keep up loan requests and curation," Spooner says.
In addition to the taxonomical goals, Kew's mycologists provide expert opinion and offer assistance to public authorities and the general public about practical aspects of mycology, from poisonings to advice on wood-rotting fungi. For example, "we had a request for information from the police in a suspected poisoning case possibly caused [by the mushroom] Amanita," says Heidi Döring, laboratory manager and taxonomic mycologist at Kew. "We also get inquiries from pet owners or vets regarding fungi that have been eaten by dogs."
Mycologists with training and an interest in taxonomy have become hard to find in recent years. Kew failed to fill advertised positions in grass systematics and mycology due to a lack of candidates with suitable experience, Spooner says. Classical taxonomy, which uses morphological features to identify species, is being replaced by DNA bar-coding techniques that use genes to tell previously known species apart. But looking only at genes does not help the discovery of new fungi species.
Classical mycologists have formally described about 70,000 species of fungi, but "it is estimated that there are at least 1.5 million species occurring on plants alone," says Pedro Crous, president of the International Mycological Association. If other niches, such as soil, were investigated in detail, millions more species would be found, he adds. Given the pharmaceutical and nutritional value of the group, if no new fungi are described, "who knows what we're missing?" Spooner asks.
Because of that pharmaceutical and nutritional value, "with training in mycology, you are able to work in many sectors of society outside of academia," Crous says. "Mushrooms have a lot of potential for anticancer drugs or bioremediation of pollution-ridden areas," says mycologist John Collier, 34, research and development manager at Monaghan Mushrooms, a fresh mushroom producer in Ireland.
Like Bidartondo, Collier got interested in fungi at an early age, picking mushrooms in the fields around his childhood home in Ireland. He pursued his interest in botany and fungi by majoring in plant sciences at University College Dublin in Ireland, taking as many courses in mycology as possible. While in college, Collier read a book called Murder, Magic, and Medicine about the use of chemicals from plants and fungi in poisons, medicine, and drugs. The book "inspired me to learn more about the compounds that plant and fungi produce to protect themselves from pests and competitors and to increase their chances of fertilization and dispersal," he says.
His interest in medical applications of plants led him through a Ph.D. at Dublin researching the production of pharmaceuticals in plant-cell cultures. After a couple of years working in patenting and commercializing academic research, Collier went back to academia for a postdoc, studying the use of medicinal fungal extracts in dairy beverages. In October 2007, Collier joined Monaghan Mushrooms to establish a research and development department within the company. The goal: to improve the company's core technologies and diversify its business by investigating new areas of the mushroom economy.
Collier leads six scientists on two teams. One team is working to improve mushroom yields and the quality of mushroom compost. The second team works on "a range of projects," he says, applying mushroom waste in novel areas such as renewable energy and the chemical industry. As the research face of the company, Collier interacts with university scientists and attends scientific conferences relating to fungi and their potential economic effects. "It's a very varied role, and I am never doing the same thing 2 days in a row," he says.
Industry research dedicated to mycology is still rare, but Collier believes that other companies will follow Monaghan's example because the potential economic rewards of scientific investment are large. Also, "the genome of fungi is still very much unknown, and as more research is done in this area, we will get a better understanding of fungi genes and how they can be manipulated," he adds.
Learning the ropes
Because fungi play a large role in agriculture, mycologists can find jobs as plant pathologists, quarantine officers, and inspectors or mushroom growers. "There are numerous options for mycologists in this area, and the same can be said for the health sector or applied fields where fungi cause problems and spoilage in produce or reduce the quality of life," Crous adds.
Still, "the teaching of mycology has sort of lost its traditional homes in many botany departments," says Paul Szaniszlo, a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at the University of Texas, Austin, adding that he's not aware of any mycology-specific programs in the United States but that fungi sciences are now often taught as modules within botany and microbiology degrees. Due to the lack of formal training opportunities, supervisors do not expect prospective students to have a thorough understanding of mycology; instead, they look for an interest in fungi and a background in plant sciences, microbiology, or bioinformatics.
As Bidartondo and Collier demonstrate, training as a mycologist usually means putting off specialization at least until graduate school. "There is no B.Sc. degree course in mycology in the U.K.," says Gareth Griffith of Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom, though some departments offer undergraduate courses on the topic. The type of mycology taught varies among universities: Aberystwyth, for example, has "a stronger slant on fungal ecology and plant pathology, whereas universities with a strongly medical microbiology B.Sc. scheme would tend to focus on pathogenic fungi," Griffith adds. At the master's level, University College London offers a program in medical mycology.
The type of mycology taught at the postgraduate level depends mostly on the interests of the principal researcher and the strategic view of the department. For example, both the Swedish University of Agriculture in Uppsala and Matteo Garbelotto's lab at UC Berkeley currently have openings in forest mycology, which focuses on fungal diseases of trees such as sudden oak death. In the United Kingdom, "the University of Exeter is currently a hotbed of research activity into fungi as pathogens of plants, while Aberdeen has a wide range of mycological interests, including animal pathogens and mycorrhizal fungi," says Lynne Boddy, president of the British Mycological Society.
Despite the current scarcity of mycologists, Collier is optimistic about the future of the field. New business opportunities created by the mushroom industry, renewable energies, ecological remediation, and, in particular, the pharmaceutical industry are bound to "generate interest in mycology and, in turn, create new jobs," he says.
Selected Mycology Labs
A university's mycology specialty largely depends on the interests of the principal researcher and the strategic view of the department.
- The Forest Mycology Program, Oregon State University, includes useful list of links
- The WWW Virtual Library: Mycology, includes directory of mycologists and mycological labs
Photo (top): Jon Mitchell
Sara Coelho is a former Science news intern.