IMPRINT, the Bell Museum's magazine for donors and members, offers stories of scientific adventure and discovery, insight into today's rapid environmental changes, updates on museum programs and exhibits, and fun activities for kids. IMPRINT is published twice a year.
Read an article from the most recent issue of Imprint, below:
A discovery in an Iowa backyard leads to international truffle research
by Andrea Klaassen
Rosanne Healy is on a mission. Her goal? To document one of the most poorly understood fungi in the world. She’s doing so at the University of Minnesota with Bell Museum curator of fungi, David McLaughlin, but Healy’s mission began south of the St. Paul lab in which she now works, in her own backyard in Ames, IA.
In 1992, Healy and her family returned to Iowa after 15 years of living in various places, and put down roots in Ames. Healy, who had fallen in love with the rainforests of her former tropical home in Puerto Rico, began taking botany classes at Iowa State. With a biology background and undergrad degree, she dove right in, eventually taking a course that would launch her academic path.
“I had heard about a mycology professor who was getting ready to retire and I really wanted to take her course before she did so,” said Healy. “I remember, one day during the course she showed us a truffle and I thought ‘Hey! I recognize that – I have that in my yard!’”
Healy’s one class turned into a passion. Her fascination for fungi was fueled by a basic, yet intriguing partnership between certain fungi (including truffles) and the roots of trees – and the further interactions between truffle fungi and animals.
“It’s interesting to learn about interactions among fungi and other organisms. After studying fungi, you never see plants in the same way. When you look at a tree, for example, you realize that there is an invisible (to us) fungal network growing among the roots, participating in a mutually beneficial relationship. Plant roots are enticing places for fungi to feed, and in return, the fungi bring nutrients and water from the soil to the roots, and in some cases also offer protection.” For animals, including rodents, voles, and mice, the fungi provide nourishment. In turn, the animals disperse the fungi through their waste.
Healy’s work with fungi progressed with a focus on the anamorph (asexual) phase of truffles. This stage fruits at the soil surface, making it easier to find than the truffles themselves. Truffles are a poorly understood group of fungi that until recently, had little scientific documentation in Eastern North America. With collaborators from North Carolina, Healy is working to change that and having success.
“When we began our survey on the truffle genus Pachyphloeus, there were 13 described species in the genus – and through microscopic and genetic analyses, we discovered that three didn’t belong in the group, bringing it down to ten,” said Healy.
It was that initial group of ten that kicked off Healy’s search, which lead her into the wooded areas all around the state – from Itasca State Park to the University’s Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. “Forested areas with oaks tend to have a variety of truffles that produce asexual forms. Those are the habitats I focused on, and before long, ten Pachyphloeus species had grown to 26, and the overall tally of truffle species in Minnesota had grown from about a dozen to 56.”
With such impressive numbers, Healy and her colleagues are on a roll, but the mission isn’t over. “The anamorphs have opened the door to surveying truffles. Truffles themselves are difficult to find, but the anamorphs are easy to see. We have gotten a nice start on surveying truffles and their anamorphs in Minnesota, North Carolina, and a bit of SE China.”
Up next is the challenge of taking the identified species, and using methods such as molecular sequencing to learn more about the role this stage plays in the life cycle.