Hmm, that sounds like magic mushrooms. But that’s not what I’m talking about :).
Recently, I had the opportunity to give a short workshop at the Genetics and Genomics of Infectious Disease conference in Singapore. It went well, and I learned a lot. Afterwards, my family came out to SE Asia for a vacation, but because of they way frequent flyer miles are, I had 5 days of free time. Malaysian Borneo, here I come! I spent three days hiking through the Sarawak jungle with a new-found British friend. It was fascinating. One of the most fascinating aspects for me were the stars at my feet.
We took a short night-hike and when my eyes got adjusted to the deep darkness, I noticed what looked like stars on the ground. We turned our flashlight back on, but saw nothing. Off, stars, on, nothing. I pinpointed one of the pin points of light and put my flashlight on it. It was a rotting piece of wood. I picked it up, turned off the light and the rotting piece of wood was glowing in the dark like there was a small LED lights running through it.
Amazing. I learned that this was a bioluminescent fungus. I was fascinated. I had never heard of bioluminescent fungus before, but life rarely surprizes me any more, there are so many strange and wonderful lifeforms on this planet.
But what did fascinate me was the question “why?” What was the evolutionary origins of bioluminescence in fungus? I knew about bioluminescence in Insecta (I used to collect lighting bugs as a kid in my home state of Virginia), in Cnidaria (I saw bioluminescent jellyfish in the Monterey Bay Aquarium), in vertebrates (all those nature shows as a kid.. and adult.. paid off with movies of angler fish), bacteria and much more, but I hadn’t heard of it in fungus before. If I had paid attention in my reading of The Adventures of Hucklberry Finn in my highschool reading class, I would have learned that they do indeed exist, in fact, perhaps in my own back yard as a kid.
The adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s comrade) By Mark Twain
I understood the evolutionary advantage of bioluminescence in lightning bugs has to do with sex (gotta attract that mate!), and for fish it can be sex or prey, etc. But why fungus? Ok, so not every feature of a creature needs to have an evolutionary advantage, in fact, a lot doesn’t. But I spent the next few evenings in the wilds of Borneo trying to figure out why something that would seem to have a metabolic cost so high would evolve in a fungus? Symbiotic like some bacterias? Couldn’t be to ‘attract a mate?’ could it? Damn, where was google when you need it?
Well, of course one of the first things I did was google ‘bioluminescent fungus’ and found that one of the possible advantages is that it attracts insects. Why would this be an advantage? Well, apparently these mushroom species often grow in the understory of thick forests and jungles, little air movement to spread spores. So, a nice friendly insect would be a perfect carrier of spores. How to attract them? Ah, yes… lanterns seem to be great attractor of insects as we humans have learned and put to our advantage. It seems so have some several tens of species of fungus, or at least through a long process of natural selection and not an engineering team. Interestingly, one of the scientists studying these species of glowing mushrooms lives in my backyard at SFSU (I’m not sure how, but that seems appropriate to me, studying glowing mushrooms in San Francisco).
Interestingly, just last week, we were giving a UCSC Genome Browser workshop at UC Berkeley. One of the questions that arose was for fungal genome resources, specifically browsers and comparative genomics. The new mycologist was lamenting that there wasn’t more genomic resources. I had to admit, I didn’t know off hand so we did a quick search and found Fungalgenomics.org. Of course, it’s using GBrowse software (which we have a publicly available tutorial on btw :). We also found the Comparative Fungal Genomics Platform (CFGP) at Seoul National University (hey, I did a semester abroad there over 20 years ago, the strained connections just multiply don’t they? :D).
So, now I’m thinking I should get a second Ph.D. on fungal evolution. Well, before I do that, I think I might just expand my search of fungal genomic resources.