Explorer of Earth’s mycological mysteries — and new Curator of Mycology at the Natural History Museum of Utah.
Dr. Bryn Dentinger, recent arrival to the University of Utah’s academic forces, is a mycologist. Yes, a scientist who studies mushrooms, here in Utah. And why not? Scientists are just starting to recognize the important role of fungi in almost every environment on Earth and Dentinger is one of the top guys in the field. In fact, Dentinger and his work might be one of the most interesting things happening, under the radar, on the University campus today.
Dentinger is impressive in many ways, starting with his academic credentials. After earning his PhD in 2001 from the University of Minnesota, he spent two years developing a method of mushroom DNA barcoding at the Royal Ontario Museum at the University of Toronto. He was granted funding from President Obama to study the evolution of mushroom mimicry in Dracula orchids. In 2012, mushrooms took him and his family to London where he accepted the position of Senior Researcher in Mycology at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a job that he left only last fall to step in as Curator of Mycology at the Natural History Museum of Utah. He’s also an associate professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Utah.
Young (not quite 40), tall and handsome, the Duluth native looks like a guy who spends his time climbing mountains and fording rivers, and he is that guy. Dentinger’s mycology research, whose regions of study include Brazil, Ecuador, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia and Viet Nam, often takes him on remote field explorations.
In the late 2000s, while Dentinger was working for the Royal Ontario Museum, filmmaker and photographer Joshua See tagged along to see what was happening with the University’s explorer-scientists as they retraced the steps of the Royal Geographic Society’s 1978 biodiversity expedition, collecting observations and species samples of bats, insects and mushrooms, to track environmental adaptations to rapid global change. BDentinger and his colleagues conducted their studies while based out of a hut constructed of metal sheeting, deep in the steep timbered mountains of Borneo’s Gunung Mulu National Park, a place so inaccessible that direct human impacts on the ecosystem are almost non-existent (though scientists are seeing plenty of indirect impacts due to climate change). “There’s over 20,000 different species of fungi in Borneo,” Dentinger told the filmmaker. “We’ve maybe documented 150 of them. The task is gigantic but we also find it stimulating. We might find something no one has seen before.”
Finding something yet undiscovered in the world of mycology, in Borneo as well as in Utah, would not be difficult. The study of fungi has long been overlooked largely because some of the most crucial fungi are nearly invisible to the naked eye. Deep underground, connected to the roots of trees and other plants, fungi perform hidden roles. “The primary decomposers of dead organic material are fungi. Without them all the dead plant material (leaves, woods, etc.) and animals would accumulate, smothering life on the ground and locking up nutrients needed by future generations,” says Dentinger. Fungi play other important roles in ecosystems, “for instance, most land plants depend on mycorrhizae, or mutualistic fungi, living on and in plant roots, for survival. At the same time, pathogenic fungi are some of the most notorious pests of our food crops and have large impacts on plant and animals worldwide.”
Fungi are amazing organisms. They play a critical role in medicine (antibiotics), biotechnology and foods (yeasts, fermentation) with many yet unrealized and underexploited applications. But there is still so much to understand about fungi. Even their basic role in the soil is still not clearly understood. The untapped potential in these little organisms is power that Dentinger hopes to better understand. Mushrooms, he believes, could play a significant role in addressing some of our biggest environmental problems.
Most recently he has been investigating the diversity, ecology and evolution of ectomycorrhizal fungi that live around the roots of plants in the tropical forest in Cameroon where a single species of tree, caesalpinioid legumes, dominates the landscape. Such a strikingly homogenous forest is atypical for tropical forests, known for their biodiversity. The observation of such a dominant species initiates a lot of questions. “There’s never been a systematic survey of the fungi in these forests,” explains Dr. Dentinger. “Much of what we are finding is new or barely known. In just a single three-hectare plot we’ve already documented over 200 species of fungi and described four new species and one new genus that live on the roots of this one species of tree.”
Dentinger suspects that what is happening in this Cameroon forest is similar to another tropical forest in South America where ectomycorrhizal fungi allow one species of tree to dominate the canopy.
Dentinger and his team are currently testing a biogeographic hypothesis about the origin of the fungi in the African and South American tropical forests. The fungal lineages, they suspect, could come from a common ancestor that was living during the time of Pangea. Understanding how these forests work, how they are similar and what conditions created them is, he says, “essential to predicting how [these fungal and forest communities] might be impacted by a changing climate, helping us to find ways to sustain and restore it.”
We now know fungi are intricately woven into the fabric of our ecosystem, but we only know about 2% of what is out there. Creating informed conservation decisions for fungi becomes difficult because of our sorely lacking knowledge of fungal diversity.
Dentinger believes we are likely losing more fungi than scientists have the capacity to document. Nevertheless, he and many other mycologists are dedicated to identifying new species and genuses because they believe that fungi could contribute environmentally friendly solutions to sustainable fuel production and refuse processing, new medicines and biotechnology, and help scientists reestablish critical ecosystems.
While Dr. Bryn Dentinger continues his important work around the globe he’s excited to also focus on his new home and his role as curator for the Museum of Natural History. “I feel strongly that museums fill an essential niche in society,” he says. “They are both custodians of the artifacts that chronicle the history of life and a well-spring of knowledge on natural history and regional heritage.”
Bioremediation as a tool to help the environment: an international effort
Bioremediation: “the use of either naturally occurring or deliberately introduced microorganisms or other forms of life to consume and break down environmental pollutants, in order to clean up a polluted site.”
In March 2017 I was given the incredible opportunity to attend the BioRemid 2017 International Conference on Bioremediation, held in the stunning and historic city of Granada, Spain. The conference brought together scientists and industry professionals from around the world to share the newest advances and innovations regarding environmental issues.
Discussion topics included using bioremediation to combat the spread of human pharmaceuticals, veterinary medicines, industrial chemicals and abusive drugs, and priority pollutants such as heavy metals and hydrocarbons. Also discussed were new technologies in biotreatment that use nanoparticles, surfactants, biopolymers and membranes, and consortium-based strategies such as new microbial formulations, phytoremediation, rhizoremediation, algae and their bacterial consortia. Conversation regarding biofuels, biorefineries, composting and anaerobic digestion brought the conference to a close.
These people are working because they care about our environment and our health. Meeting them and being a part of this knowledge exchange inspired my hope in the real possibilities of remediating devastated sites.
Anna Albertsen is a senior in the University of Utah Environmental and Sustainability Studies program.
She is CATALYST’s intern.