As is often the case in the natural world, the unseen can have outsized impacts all around us. Such is the case with microscopic fungi, or microfungi, which can have major consequences on the function and health of ecosystems.

Microfungi represent a diverse assemblage that is distributed worldwide and includes bread molds, plant pathogens, powdery mildews, rusts, slime molds and water molds. Some of these organisms are harmless. Some are even beneficial. But some cause disease and death in animals, including humans, plants and other fungi, resulting in major economic loss and serious negative implications for human and ecosystem health. Despite their importance, little is known about their distribution, diversity, ecology or host associations, according to the project abstract.

Professor Tim James, principal investigator, and Matthew Foltz, project manager, were the collaborators for the award, which was just over $118,000, for the University of Michigan Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and University Herbarium.

“Among these prominent microfungi are the grey mold Pseudogymnoascus destructans, a bat pathogen, which was recently introduced into a specific region in the United States and has since spread throughout the eastern half of North America, including Michigan,” said James. “The fungus is psychrophilic (cold loving) and grows in cool, damp caves. Only bats that hibernate in these large caves are susceptible to the disease which is called white nose syndrome because it grows in and near bat extremities such as the nose and wings.”

The data are available online on the website of the Microfungi Collections Consortium. The consolidation and increased accessibility of these data is critical to inform and promote new and innovative research, education and community engagement around this little-known but important group of organisms. For example, the database could help as a resource for some 20th century scourges, such as chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease, by allowing information on the localities, morphologies, and ultimately (through lab work) DNA analysis of specimens, explained James.

The official name of the project, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, is The Microfungi Collections Consortium: A Networked Approach to Digitizing Small Fungi with Large Impacts on the Function and Health of Ecosystems. The award was made as part of a Thematic Collections Network (TCN) through the Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections program of NSF.  The lead institution for the project was the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign led by principal investigator Andrew Miller, Illinois Natural History Survey. All data resulting from this award is available through, the specimen portal of iDigBio, the National Resource for Digitization of Biological Collections.

This is a fungus called Septobasidium cokeri, and it is the type specimen, which means it is the one linked to the original species description. The fungus forms a fascinating mutualism with scale insects that parasitize oak trees by growing as a house like covering over non-motile adult insects that protects them from predators. Photo generated by the Global Plants Initiative with funding by the Carnegie Mellon.

The recently completed project was part of a collaboration involving 38 institutions in 31 states that consolidated data for over 2 million microfungi specimens housed in biodiversity collections. Specimen data generated by this project will be used to assess natural and human-induced environmental changes on microfungi distributions, and evaluate the impact of these changes on the function and health of ecosystems, the abstract continues. The project filled a critical gap in the national digitization effort by contributing images, digitizing specimen label data, and linking associated ancillary data. Additionally, nomenclature (naming) and taxonomic information will be updated. The data will provide a foundation for making informed decisions by agribusinesses, educators, forest managers, government agencies, horticulturalists, policy makers, researchers and the general public.

A teaching module for high school biology students on the economic importance of microfungi has been developed as part of the broader education goals. The program hosted 12 high school biology teachers from Georgia and North Carolina at a workshop before and during the Annual Mycological Society of America meeting in Athens, Ga. in 2017. 

Another TCN project involving the U-M Herbarium and James, principal investigator, the North American Lichens and Bryophytes: Sensitive Indicators of Environmental Quality and Change, was completed in 2016. The lead institution was the University of Wisconsin, Madison with principal investigators Corinna Gries and Thomas Nash.

Lichens and bryophytes (mosses and their relatives) are sensitive indicators of environmental change, and are dominant organisms in arctic-alpine and desert habitats, where the effects of climate change are well-documented, states the project abstract. This project imaged label data from about 2.3 million North American lichen and bryophyte specimens from more than 60 collections to address questions of how species distributions change after major environmental events, both in the past and projected into the future. Large-scale distribution mapping will help identify regions where such changes are likely, fostering programs designed to protect these organisms. Awardees built and enhanced a national volunteer community, provided online seminars, extensive online training materials, and local workshops and field trips. Data from this project is also available via the iDigBio specimen portal.

Background about this Herbarium news series:

The University of Michigan Herbarium has been awarded seven National Science Foundation grants over the past seven years. Six of the grants involve Thematic Collections Networks (TCN), which are collaborative projects administered by the Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) project

Each TCN is a network of institutions with a strategy for digitizing information that addresses a particular research theme. Once digitized, data are easily accessed and available for other research and educational use. The nationwide effort is coordinated by the iDigBio program based at the University of Florida.

Since the first TCN project at the Herbarium (Tri-Trophic TCN) began in January 2012, over 575,000 specimens from the collection have been imaged as part of these projects.  Most of the images, either of the specimen labels or of the specimens themselves, are available online. Another aspect involves digitizing the data about the individual specimens and georeferencing localities.

Related articles previously in EEB web news:

Herbarium completes imaging and digitization of type collections

Digitizing the U-M Herbarium collections: tri-trophic update

Digitizing the U-M Herbarium collections: macrofungi update

Digitizing the U-M Herbarium collections: macroalgal update

Digitizing the U-M Herbarium collections: Great Lakes Invasive species update