HAYWARD—To walk a mile in someone else’s shoes takes on special meaning for biological sciences Professor Carol Lauzon, a co-lead scientist on a groundbreaking research grant to study the origins of the Earth.
(First published in Cal State East Bay Magazine.)
“If I was a microbe struggling inside this fungus, what would I need?” she asks herself. Lauzon is thinking about the physiology of what feeds the microbial bacteria that has been newly discovered inside the dark, sulfurous membrane of the foot-size fungi Pisolithus tinctorius, also known as “Dead Man’s Toe.” She compares it to being inside a mini-planet, seeing unseen worlds.
Not only is this groundbreaking news for scientists delving into the esoteric realm of Earth’s beginnings and its evolution, but, if Lauzon can identify how these microbes create self-sustaining energy from the chalky, acidic landscape of Yellowstone Park geysers and the similarly thermal lands of New Zealand that they thrive in, it could open up untold possibilities — like what kind of life might live on other planets, and how to grow food in outer space. Here on Earth, the fungi’s inhospitable natural habitat creates questions as to whether it holds detoxifying properties that could be used to remediate hazardous waste sites.
Lauzon is partnering with NASA biologist Ken Cullings to study the mysterious inner oily world of the primitive fungi. Cullings was the first to look inside Dead Man’s Toe for answers as to its survival in such nutrient- deficient environments and identify “novel and deeply divergent lineages,” meaning that the family tree of these biological organisms has never been seen before — and some of them don’t appear to have evolved from any other biological organism recorded to date.
The pair, introduced by a former student of Lauzon’s who went on to work at NASA, has launched a three-year joint research project funded by a $1 million grant from NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets division. Cullings is an expert in fungal ecology and phylogenetics, the study of evolutionary relationships among biological species. Lauzon’s expertise is the microbial world of insect and plant microinteractions. Cullings uses polymerase chain reaction (PCR), an advanced genetic technology, to amplify copies of a single gene several billion times for study. He estimates the microbes they’ve found are 3.5-4 billion years old. Since Cullings’ initial discovery of a new biological tree, he and Lauzon have gone on to discover additional novel microbial lines. So far, they have identified two entirely new phyla and seven new classes. For the layperson, consider that a single phylum includes all invertebrates — everything on the planet with a spine; a new class is equivalent to discovering all of the birds.
CSUEB grad students Kaushalya Tillakarantha and Charles Richard and NASA technicians Nicole Marinkovich, Tina Turong and Julie DeSimone are working on the project as well. A third student, Candace Cole, is studying tangentially the use of microbes, either from the fungus or from contaminated soils, to bioremediate soils and waters.
“Now we have the daunting challenge of taking what (Cullings) found, and turning it into life to really study them,” Lauzon says of the organisms. So, she and her students have taken to the lab, where they are teasing out information and imagining what the microbes might need to live where they do — walking in the shoes of Dead Man’s Toe. Lauzon compares the research with discovering one’s ancestral lineage on Ancestry.com — tracing the fungi forward from its microbial roots to potentially uncover a greater dialogue about evolution. “We know so little about the microbial life on this planet, less than one percent,” she says. “The microbes have really shaped the planet since the beginning. (This discovery is) going to give us this audit of life on our planet that we haven’t known about.”