Researcher Finds World's Most Diverse Home Of Slime Molds

November 06, 1998

ATHENS, Ohio -- The secret to saving the world's vanishing rain forests may lie in tiny slug-like organisms tucked away in the tropical soil of a Guatemalan forest, according to an Ohio University researcher who has discovered what could be home to the world's most diverse collection of slime molds.

"This area in Guatemala looks like one of the best spots on Earth for slime molds," said James Cavender, professor of environmental and plant biology and one of only a handful of botanists in the world who study the ecology of slime molds.

Cellular slime molds are primitive organisms that begin life as single-cell spores that form amoebae. Living in the surface layers of soil, they feed on bacteria. Before they die, they pile together and form a multicellular body resembling a slug-like creature several millimeters long.

They then abandon their animal nature to form a stationary stalk containing cellulose, which rises above the ground and leaves behind spores that stick to the feet of scurrying animals on the forest floor, spreading the spores for new life elsewhere.

"They are extremely old organisms that evolved before plants and animals, so they have found a very successful way to live in the soil," Cavender said. "They keep the soil healthy and fertile, and that's why they're so important."

About 70 species of slime molds have been discovered worldwide. More than 30 of these have been identified by Cavender, who has spent nearly 40 years collecting the organisms in Alaska, the Amazon Basin, Central America, East Africa, the Himalayas, Japan and Switzerland.

The more than 1,000 samples of slime mold spores that Cavender has preserved at Ohio University could, he believes, be revived and introduced again into the soil of the world's vanishing rain forests.

When trees in rain forests are cut down, slime molds die from exposure to direct sun and rain. Without slime molds, forest rebirth is impossible.

"There's a lot of pressure to cut the rain forests, and that means a loss of soil sustainability," Cavender said. "I hope this will draw people's attention to the need to preserve rain forests."

Cavender's discoveries in the lush forest of Tikal, Guatemala, take him another step closer to preserving slime molds for future forest restoration. In Tikal, Cavender has found seven new species of slime molds, four of them identified in the Polysphondylium genus and three in the Dictyostelium genus.

"That is amazing," he said. "Something's going on there that's allowing all these species to live together. It's so rich in diversity."

His research was published in a recent edition of the journal Mycologia and was co-authored by Eduardo Vadell, a 1993 graduate of Ohio University's Department of Environmental and Plant Biology. The research was funded in part by the Ohio University Research Committee. Cavender holds an appointment in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Contact: James Cavender, (740) 593-4551;
Written by Melissa Rake, (740) 593-1891;

Ohio University

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