Professor Timothy James has received a $550,000 three-year grant from the National Science Foundation for his project, “Unveiling the diversity and ecological role of the obligate parasitic fungi in phylum Cryptomycota.”

According to James, “This project will investigate the biodiversity and ecological role of a new group of fungal parasites known as Cryptomycota. Cryptomycota are notable because they are the most ancient divergence on the fungal tree of life, are known almost exclusively as environmental DNA signatures rather than cultures or fruiting bodies, and are potentially all endoparasites growing obligately inside host cells. Because they are not amenable to cultivation, very little is known about the group, other than they are particularly ubiquitous in aquatic environments. This project will attempt to further our understanding of the true diversity and habitat specialization of the group using molecular methods such as metagenomics and single cell genomics. By fractionating the environment we hope to discern more precisely upon what Cryptomycota may be feeding. 

“Understanding Cryptomycota diversity is also of great importance because their phylogenetic diversity may be as great as the rest of the fungi,” he said.

Together with collaborators, James recently sequenced the genomes of two species of Cryptomycota growing in the lab in association with their hosts, a water mold parasite Rozella allomycis and an unnamed Daphnia parasite.

“These data resolved the placement of the group as the earliest branch on the fungal tree of life and showed that the Cryptomycota includes the enigmatic group microsporidia parasites. However, almost nothing is known about the host associations of the remaining Cryptomycota or their ecological roles.

“As common parasites in aquatic and marine ecosystems, knowledge of the diversity and ecological role of Cryptomycota will be fundamental for understanding nutrient cycling and control of host population dynamics. Moreover, it is likely that Cryptomycota may also infect humans, livestock, or animals of conservation concern but have remained undetected to date.”

The project is in collaboration with the Joint Genome Institute of the Department of Energy.