Campus Researchers Unexpectedly Discover New Species of Bread Mold

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Bread mold

Plant and microbial biologists have made a discovery about two gentically different populations of bread mold that were considered to be identical.

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Biologists at UC Berkeley have discovered a new species of bread mold, providing insight into how differences in climate affect genetic variation.

The study - led by UC Berkeley professor of plant and microbial biology John Taylor and set to be published this week in journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - compared different populations of mold to show the effects of geographic distribution on the organism's evolution. The results of the study can be applied in the research of evolutionary genetics and in studies on the effect of climate change on animals and plants.

Under the support of a National Institute of Health grant, researchers were originally studying Neurospora crassa - a red bread mold that is commonly used in laboratories because it is easy to grow and has features that are comparable to many other organisms.

According to Louise Glass, UC Berkeley professor of plant and microbial biology and study collaborator, 40 percent of the mold's genome is poorly understood. The grant funded research to find out more about the mold's genetics.

"The original goal was to track genetic differences between individuals that we thought were mating and mixing freely among each other," Glass said.

However, looking at the genes, researchers discovered that a collection of mold samples from the Caribbean Basin originally thought to be from the same population was actually from several distinct populations. Researchers were able to establish two groups that were not freely mating and compared them.

"That's when we discovered we could work backward - by identifying genes that had experienced strong selection, then using the genes to guess the environmental parameters that are important for the selection and the adaptive phenotype," said Taylor, principal investigator of the study.

Using this process, coined "reverse ecology" by biologist Matthew Rockman in 2007, scientists tried to determine what had driven specific types of mold to mate with each other. According to Chris Ellison, UC Berkeley graduate student and lead author of the study, the usual practice is to notice an obvious difference in populations and then target the genes to see patterns of variation.

"But we didn't have that ability - the fungi looked the same in general," Ellison said. "The only differences were microscopic."

Looking at the differences between the two populations - a group of samples taken from Louisiana and another group taken from Florida, Haiti and the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico - Ellison looked for genes that were passed down more often, specifically in response to cold temperatures. The mold's resistance to cold temperatures also correlated with their distribution geographically. Louisiana experiences a colder average temperature than the tropical climates of Florida, the Yucatan and Haiti.

"We are still in the process of studying what the grant initially described, but it's fortuitous that this unexpected element came up - it gave us a whole different path of research to explore," Ellison said.

According to Rachel Brem, another collaborator and UC Berkeley assistant professor of genetics, it is a testament to the power of a simple system like Neurospora crassa that it can reveal principles of evolution that are important to higher organisms as well. She explained that studying single-celled eukaryotes is relatively low-cost because they have small genomes, allowing researchers to examine single-celled organisms and apply this to more complicated, larger animals.

"Fungus is a great thing for us to use," Brem said. "It's an extremely successful evolutionary model."


Kate Lyons covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected]

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