How does one become so interested in mushrooms? A love for food! Alden Dirks, an ecology and evolutionary biology doctoral student, grew up eating a diet full of mushrooms. But it was a unique-looking specimen Dirks found at the local grocery store back in 2015 that thrust him into the world of fungi.
Dirks was already studying biology and soon found himself wanting to learn more about the biology of fungi, specifically interesting mushrooms.
“They (mushrooms) just blew my mind. And I learned that you could forage for them outside. It was different and challenging, so that motivated me to learn more. The biological aspects of fungi became really interesting to me,” said Dirks. “I now work with Tim James, a mycologist in the Ph.D. program. I'm interested in the genetic makeup, evolution and biodiversity of fungi.”
After exploring different research interests, Dirks found his niche with false morels, a common interest for many Michiganders. Many Michigan natives forage for local morel mushrooms in the spring. Dirks explains that certain false morels, while labeled poisonous, are actually eaten without issue by many. Field guides list all false morels as toxic but that is only partially true. Dirks’ work helps identify which false morels are genuinely toxic.
“We didn't know which ones (false morels) were truly toxic and which ones were safe to eat. So I set out to figure out which species contained the toxin, gyromitrin, while also trying to figure out the genes that make the toxin and how it's evolved in the group.”
In Dirks’ most recent publications, the research team developed a new gyromitrin test and surveyed many species of false morel from North America. Specimens have been sent from all over the country to Dirks’ team to add to this survey, increasing the amount of toxic data collected.
“Along the way, we've collected a ton of mushrooms! I've been sequencing them and working with a mycologist at the University of Illinois in a taxonomic context. Some of those mushrooms we collected from Stinchfield Woods, a UofM property located in Dexter, Michigan,” said Dirks. “We described a new species this year, Gyromitra americanigigas.