From slime to saviors: Sorting out the fungal family tree

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL--We've called them scum, lifesavers, and even hors d'oeuvres, but only since 1995 has anyone called them relatives. That was the year scientists determined that mushrooms, yeast, mildews and other fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants. Now, the National Science Foundation has awarded $2.65 million to the University of Minnesota, along with Duke, Oregon State and Clark universities, to sort out relationships among this diverse group of organisms, to which the world owes several antibiotics, beer, wine, cheese and bread, among other things. The four-year grant is part of NSF's Assembling the Tree of Life program, which seeks to determine exact evolutionary relationships within several of its branches.

The study may help scientists find ways to deal with an aquatic fungus that is now attacking frogs and may be partly responsible for their recent worldwide decline. The study could also point researchers to species of fungi that, by virtue of being related to medically or commercially important species, may produce drugs or other useful products. Fungal-produced drugs discovered to date include penicillin; griseofulvin, used on athlete's foot; and the cephalosporins, which are similar to penicillin.

"Some fungi are crucial for life, but others cause many medical, plant and animal diseases, and it's important to learn which ones are closely related so we can choose the correct model organism to study the troublemakers," said David McLaughlin, professor of plant biology in the College of Biological Sciences and principal investigator for the university's $510,000 share of the grant. "In assembling the family tree of fungi, our team will look at multiple genes and structural characteristics across a broad spectrum of fungi and put them in a database. Here at the University of Minnesota, we're studying the very finest elements of structure."

"Good" fungi do considerably more than supply people with drugs and

Contact: Deane Morrison
University of Minnesota

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