CHAPEL HILL - When Dr. Jan Kohlmeyer and his wife, Dr. Brigette Volkmann-Kohlmeyer, want to make a scientific discovery, often they only need to walk to the tidal creek bordering their Carteret County property. There they find an almost mind-boggling diversity of fungi -- the second largest group of organisms after insects -- to study in their laboratory.
Jan Kohlmeyer, professor of marine sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has now identified a new order of the tiny life forms. In his career, he already has described two orders, three families and more than 150 new species.
"Because most of these organisms are microscopic, they don't get much publicity, but they are very important in nature," the biologist said. "If they didn't exist, cellulose would accumulate and cause terrible pollution in the woods, fields and marine environment."
The Kohlmeyers and Dr. Joseph Spatafora of Oregon State University have found that the 11 species in the genus Lulworthia and six species of the genus Lindra belong to the new order, which they are calling Lulworthiales. DNA studies have shown them to be distinctively different from species in other orders.
A report on the research will appear in the May/June issue of the journal Mycologia, which publishes scientific papers on discoveries about fungi.
The various Lulworthia and Lindra species are all marine decomposers rather than parasites, Kohlmeyer said. They break down dead seaweed, marsh plants and wood, including wooden pilings and boats, and recycle their stored nutrients in oceans and especially estuaries. Without them and their cousins, life would cease to exist in its current form on Earth.
Four years ago, the UNC-CH biologists reported discovering a unique ballistic form of reproduction that a species they named Glomerobolus employed. That fungus squeezes gelatinous spheres called propagules between finger-like structures and, when the pressure builds to a maximum, shoots them outward like microscopic cannon balls.
The sticky projectiles are perhaps more like spitballs of the marshlands, Jan Kohlmeyer said. Whatever they hit more than a foot away, they adhere to. Snails and other invertebrates lunch on some, while tiny fish sup on those that plop in the water.
Propagules not eaten themselves germinate and begin to break down leaves of dead needlerush, a marsh plant common in the eastern United States.
To his amazement, he and his wife have discovered more than 100 new species of marine fungi on needlerush alone. About 60 percent of N.C. coastal marshes are composed of that plant, which is a kind of grass.
"Normally, you find a maximum of about eight species on a host plant, and so finding more than 10 times that amount is really remarkable," Kohlmeyer said.
Besides their potential as cancer drugs, the scientist said compounds the fungi contain might prove useful against hard-to-cure fungi that afflict humans internally such as Candida and externally such as foot and toenail forms.
About 57,000 species have been described so far, and a well-based estimate is that about 1.5 million species exist. Each has to be measured, photographed, dissected, analyzed, described and named.
"This means that there is still lots of work to do," he said. "Fortunately, it's really fascinating and exciting. When I retire fully, I plan to keep working without pay because this work is fun for me."
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