Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Mushroom madness

Wow. You know you're a nerd when going to the local mycology club meeting creates such excitement that you want to join right off the bat! ^^

I happen to be this manner of nerd; aside from my addictions to fantasy, myth, and pen-and-paper RPGs, my love of discovery leads me to the study of science. As an undergraduate at college, I find that my major--Environmental Science--suits me particularly well. I get to study a wide range of topics, including soil science, the atmosphere, hydrology, arboriculture (tree care), organic farming, and many others, and take them all together to find out what I can do best to help out our Mother Earth.

This spring semester, I was lucky enough to secure a small grant for undergraduate research. The topic? Collecting fungal sporocarps (mushrooms) in an oak savanna from both burned and non-burned areas, extracting DNA from them, replicating a small portion of that DNA, digest it with an enzyme, and then sort the fragments with an agar gel. Here's a picture of some bands on a gel:

The leftmost column is the "ladder", which shows bands of DNA at various sizes. The gel will allow small fragments to travel the furthest, while larger ones are trapped in the gel matrix early on; the ladder runs from biggest at top to smallest at bottom. The columns to the right of the ladder are examples of bands from different DNA samples. One can compare the bands to those in the ladder and infer their size, which means you can identify different DNA sources by their characteristic bands in the gel. This is what I'm doing with those mushrooms.

To supplement the gel method, I'm also learning to identify the mushrooms morphologically (by physical features, such as size, color, shape, etc). Good thing we took so many pictures! I'll load a couple in a later post, as some of them are quite striking.

In any case, I've become very interested in mycology, or the study of mushrooms, to the point where I'm considering incorporating them into my studies at grad school (once I pick some to apply to and actually start applying...). In order to get my foot in the mycological door, I searched around online for professors who focus on mushrooms. With one thing and another Google search, I found that there are other silly folks like me around who actually get together in the name of mushrooms! There's even a North American Mycological Association--who knew.

So after class and my usual Monday night gym time, I went over to where the local group was meeting and--suprise!--the room is loaded with people. Our guest speaker was talking about ethnomycology, or how indigenous peoples incorporate mushrooms into their lives; uses religious, culinary, medical, and even economical were discussed. I even got a free issue of Fungi magazine :)

Now that you're convinced I've gone off the deep end (or have been experimenting with 'magic mushrooms') think about this: almost every plant around has a symbiotic relationship with fungi. These mycorrhizal fungi grow with plant roots, and provide the lion's share of water and nutrients in exchange for sugars made by the plant. So next time you see a mushroom sprouting by a tree, take a second to thank it for helping that tree survive!

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