The Forest Products Laboratory’s (FPL) Center for Mycology Research is home to one of the largest collections of wood-decay fungi in the world. The collection consists of an herbarium and a culture collection.
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The herbarium serves as a national repository for wood-decay fungi collected by mycologists since the early 1900s. The fungi fruiting bodies (mainly conks, mushrooms, crusts, or stromata) are collected in the field and then dried and briefly frozen for insect control.
The culture collection is one of the largest assemblages of fungi in the world, containing about 12,000 isolates representing about 1,500 species. The collection is diverse, but primarily consists of Basidiomycetous fungi. Mycologists continuously collect new cultures of wood-decay fungi as they conduct research on fungal biodiversity throughout the world. These fungi are brought back to FPL and identified by experts, and cultures of the freshly collected fruiting bodies are made from spores, fungal tissue, or both.
The herbarium and culture collection are a valuable resource to the scientific community. Aside from contributing to further study of fungi through classification or DNA sequencing, the collection is also used in biotech applications. Examples of such work include using decay fungi to break down wood for pulp and paper or biofuels production, and for bioremediation of toxic pollutants in soil.
Wood decay fungi are also a potential source of pharmaceuticals, including cancer-fighting agents. Pharmaceutical companies have screened some of FPL’s fungi for their ability to produce chemicals that may be of use in medicine or other processes. Many opportunities exist for further work in this area.
Collaboration brings a wealth of resources to research, and international visiting scientists can often be found working along side permanent researchers at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL).
Dr. Xingxia Ma, Chinese Academy of Forestry
One such scientist is Professor Xingxia Ma, Chinese Academy of Forestry, Bejing, China, who recently completed a research sabbatical in the Durability and Wood Protection research unit at FPL.
Dr. Ma’s research included developing comparative decay test methodologies and genetic identification of soil-inhabiting fungi present in laboratory fungal cellar beds.
Fungal cellar beds are a standardized method for accelerated testing of wood and wood-based materials in contact with soil.The soil bed is amended with select fungi that cause brown- and white-rot decay of wood. These fungi are intended to accelerate the rate of decay in wood samples that are embedded in soil tubs; however, the majority of decay observed in soil bed tests is usually a third type of decay called soft-rot. Fungi that cause soft-rot thrive in environments with elevated moisture and high nitrogen content.
Fungal cellar isolates were Sanger-sequenced for genetic identification and entered into FPL’s fungal database. Development of a fungal database was identified as a National priority by members of the wood protection industry.
Lab Notes remembers another pioneering woman scientist: Catherine Gross Duncan. Duncan received her A.B. Degree in botany from the Depauw University in 1931. She went on to earn her M.S. and her P.h.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1933 and 1935, respectively.
In December 1942, she joined the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin. Originally, she was recruited by the Lab to aid in the war effort. Duncan stayed after the war for the remainder of her career. She eventually rose to the rank of principal pathologist at the FPL in the Wood Fungi and Insects Research, where she served until her death in 1968.
Ralph Lindgren and Catherine Duncan inspecting the growth of a fungus that is part of the fungi collection.
During her career, Duncan published over 40 papers examining various aspects of wood decay fungi. A majority of her work surrounded the quality and improvement of wood preservatives. Duncan was also involved with the dissertations of 30 students while she worked at FPL. Students noted that “It was always a challenge to meet her standards for rigor and proof in research”.
Early in her career, one of the first projects she completed for FPL was to examine the natural resistance of decay from different species of trees. In studying these differences, she helped develop the soil-block technique, which allows for wood decay to be studied at an accelerated rate. This technique became especially important when evaluating wood preservatives and their longevity, and is still in use today.
Soil-block tests showing the effects of fungi on a specimen: (A) fungus growing on
untreated wood specimen; (B) fungus fruiting on untreated wood specimen; (C) preservative-treated wood specimen.
In honor of Women’s History Month, Lab Notes remembers Frances F. Lombard. At a time when few women worked in science, Lombard received a M.A. degree in mycology (the study of mushrooms and other fungi) from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Lombard joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1941 and served in the Agricultural Research and Forest Services as a mycologist, specializing in the identification of wood-decaying and wood-inhabiting Homobasidiomycetes in pure culture. She was stationed at the Center for Forest Mycology Research at FPL and published over 20 papers during her tenure.
Frances Lombard studying a fungus using a light microscope.
FPL has a long history of mycology research. The Center for Forest Mycology Research houses the largest wood fungus collection in the world, with over 5,000 species of fungi. Whereas the mycology research has numerous goals, many of these fungi are used in research to determine the effectiveness of wood preservatives.
Thanks to a pioneering woman scientist and her work for the Lab.