A New Fungus Among Us

Tufts scientists identify a new species in a wasp nest right on campus

paper wasp nest

While some researchers travel to the ends of the earth in their search for new species, a team led by a Tufts biologist discovered a previously unknown fungus right under their proverbial noses, in a wasp nest near a dumpster on the Medford/Somerville campus.

The researchers had set out to explore potential new environments for species of bacteria and fungi, the single-cell organisms found around the world. Scientists have described only about 10 percent of the fungi and bacteria species believed to exist—not a surprise considering that there are thought to be more bacterial species in the world than stars in the sky.

Scientists explore in novel locations both to understand those environments and to ferret out new species that could lead to new sources of chemicals and enzymes for medical or industrial use.

Led by Philip T. Starks, an associate professor of biology in the School of Arts and Sciences, and doctoral student Anne A. Madden, G13, the team decided to take a look at wasp nests, which are often built on houses, trash containers and other objects made by humans.

“Nests of the invasive species of paper wasps had never been investigated for their microbial community,” says Madden. There are so many types of locations to study fungus, she notes, and apparently no one had gotten around to the wasps before. “But because researchers know so much about this host wasp, we thought it would be particularly valuable to characterize the microbes of the nest.”

Madden took samples from active nests of paper wasps on campus in August 2008, working at night when the insects are less active, and being careful not to breathe on them—like ants, they respond to the carbon dioxide in mammal breath.

Later, the team grew the fungus samples in the lab, which was like planting a garden with a handful of unknown seeds to see what grows. The resulting fungi species were teased apart using genetic sequencing techniques, and one had a unique gene sequence that suggested it had not previously been characterized.

Further laboratory studies confirmed that the scientists had indeed discovered a new species: a fluffy, white, fast-growing fungus that resembles rabbit fur, says Madden. The scientists named it Mucor nidicola—noting that nidicola translates from Latin to “living in another’s nest.”

“It’s shocking, but also quite exciting that we know more about what microbes live under the sea than we do about those that associate with the insects that actually live in our houses,” says Starks.

The findings were recently published in collaboration with colleagues from the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Spain and the University of Texas in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.

“When most people think of microbes, they immediately think of those bacteria or fungi that cause disease,” says Madden. “While certain microbes do cause disease, many produce compounds or carry out reactions that are crucial for human society. In fact, most of the antibiotics on the market are actually produced by bacteria that live in the soil.”

The researchers now plan to investigate further to see what other species are present in the nests’ microbial community, says Madden.

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