Exploring the Secret Lives of Fungi

National Science Foundation Funds $3 Million Study of Fungi Superpowers

Photograph of mushrooms in a forest
The enormous diversity of fungi includes mushrooms that grow in a forest after a soaking rain. In a National Science Foundation-funded project, researchers at University of Houston are looking into the hidden potential of fungal cells and will explore potential special properties they possess.
Photo of researchers Stacey Louie and Debora Rodrigues
At right, Professor of Civil Engineering Debora Rodrigues is the principal investigator of a study that aims to reveal unknown properties of fungi. Stacey Louie, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is one of four co-principal investigators in the project.

Two professors with the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering, with colleagues from the University of Michigan and University of New Mexico, have embarked on a road rarely traveled by researchers – exploring the unknown qualities, capabilities and secrets of fungi.

Just to be clear here, we are talking about fungi – a group of microorganisms that can grow everywhere. Fungi are these mysterious mushrooms that we frequently find in the woods and after a lot of rain. The professors and their research colleagues believe that fungal cells may hold tremendous power that science has yet to tap into, or even recognize.

“Fungi are among the least studied microorganisms. By comparison, bacteria are studied very much, so we know a lot about them. The diversity of fungi is enormous. I started working with fungi about four years ago, and I am fascinated by what they can do,” said Debora Rodrigues, professor of civil engineering and the principal investigator of a five-year research project funded by a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Of that, $1.5 million is budgeted for UH.

Joining Rodrigues on the research team is co-principal investigator Stacey Louie, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the UH Cullen College of Engineering.

“My interest is in the chemistry side. I’ll be looking at new data on how different fungal species interact with metals and how that interaction could be relevant to metals detoxification,” Louie said.

The projects’ other co-principal investigators are Gregory Bonito, associate professor of mycology, Michigan State University; Adam W. Brown, professor of electronic art and intermedia, Michigan State University; and José Cerrato, associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, University of New Mexico.

There is still not much known about how fungi interact with other fungi and bacteria growing in, on or around their cells, and their curious potential to either avoid toxic substances or transform them into matter that is benign, potentially even helpful.

That tricky ability could make fungi a major key in cleaning up water or soils polluted with toxic metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium, all of which even in small amounts can harm humans. How they do this remains one of fungi’s biggest mysteries.

“Fungi excrete a lot of stuff into their surrounding environment, basically a lot of biomolecules and enzymes. This enables them to transform metals and other contaminants in the environment,” Rodrigues explained. “In some situations, fungi actually uptake toxic metals. But there are major questions. First, what effects do metals have on the fungal microbiome (the bacteria living inside or around the fungus)? And second, how do these bacteria also affect the metal transformation or assist in fungal tolerance to metals?”

For many years, bacteria were assumed to be the group of microorganisms most responsible for cleaning up their environment. However, researchers on this project believe fungus together with their microbiome might be far better at cleaning nasty chemicals, including metals, and transform these metals in nanoparticles that can be applied in different industries.

Hence, they will be exploring further potential benefits of fungi and their microbiome including as part of artworks. You read that right: There is art in fungi.

That aspect is the special concentration of co-principal investigator Adam W. Brown, whose art blends art with science to show the result of human entanglement with earth’s microbiota species. Brown’s work has been exhibited around the world for more than two decades.

His challenge will be to work with these microorganisms that are the focus of this particular research and reveal something of their role in balancing the ecology.

“Those microorganisms have been on earth long before humans,” Rodrigues said. They have been transforming everything. We didn’t know about it, but for all those years they were transforming a soup of ions from metals that are toxic, harmful. It’s their way of making a safe environment for themselves and, in the process, for us, too. I always thought bacteria were the superstars, but now I see fungi as the true superstars, and their microbiomes as their co-stars. They’re really fascinating, these little guys. They’re going to be the ones making history in the future.”