Researcher Uncovers New Species Of Fungus In Wisconsin Lake

June 02, 1998

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Among the underwater debris where elusive muskies dwell in northern Wisconsin, there lives a newly identified creature with dangling appendages. No need to fear it, however. The organism is microscopic and prefers cattails.

The creature is a new species of fungus that has been named Phomatospora muskellungensis after both the muskie, which American Indians called the ugly (musk) fish (kinonge), and the Big Muskellunge Lake where it was found.

The discovery is part of a growing interest in freshwater fungi and the potential medicinal value that they may have, said Payam M. Fallah, a doctoral student in the department of plant biology at the University of Illinois. "When a tree falls in the water, you have a lot of microorganisms that climb on board to decompose it," he said. "They have many chemicals in them. Fungi are very specialized. They are a very much untapped source of new compounds."

The species was described recently in the journal Mycologia by Fallah and Carol A. Shearer, a professor of plant biology who has been studying the chemical compounds of freshwater fungi in collaboration with Jim Gloer, a chemist at the University of Iowa.

A year earlier in Mycologia, Fallah, Shearer and Weidong Chen of the Illinois Natural History Survey detailed another new fungus genus and species, Ascovaginospora stellipala, which Fallah found on dead stems and leaves of peat moss in two bogs in the same area of northern Wisconsin.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Fallah has been collecting submerged decaying stems of various aquatic plants from lakes in the NSF's North Temperate Lakes Long-Term Ecological Research site in Vilas County, Wisconsin. Back at the U. of I., he studies the microscopic life that feeds on the plant debris he has recovered.

After studying the new fungus, he was able to place it within the genus Phomatsopora. He then compared it to samples of two similar Phomatsopora species (berkleyi, discovered in England in 1875; and striatigera, Austria, 1988). Fallah noticed some differences: Its reproductive body was distinctive, and its arm-like appendages were covered with fibrous endings.

"My belief is that the appendages help in self-preservation against dehydration, for example, and for attaching to substrates in moving water and helping in flotation," said Fallah, whose research interests are in evolution.

"The fungi kingdom is unique and diverse," he said. "In numbers, the population is probably second to that of insects, but there are relatively few mycologists compared with the number of entomologists. Very few people have studied fungi in the freshwater environment, so probably many species have yet to be discovered."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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