Inside Story

Fungi hidden in plants on a South Pacific island offer hope for human and environmental health.  Imke Schmitt has no idea what she has gotten herself into. Literally.

Assistant professor of plant biology, Schmitt studies fungi that grow with—or within—other living things. Her focus is largely on lichens, a symbiosis between fungi and algae or cyanobacteria. But this spring, she is headed to a 20,000-acre nature reserve on the South Pacific island of New Guinea to study a different kind of mycological mutualism. As part of a National Institutes of Health–funded project led by University of Utah pharmacologist Louis Barrows, she and colleague George Weiblen will be assessing diversity of endophytic fungi—fungi that live inside plants.

“We don’t know what to expect,” Schmitt says. “New Guinea is one of the biological diversity hotspots of the world, however, its endophyte diversity has never been surveyed.”

They do know what they’re hoping for, however—and that’s an abundance of these organisms-within-organisms. Found in nearly every single plant in the world, endophytic fungi are tantalizingly diverse: Postdoctoral fellow Daniel Ballhorn, who will accompany Schmitt, once found 110 kinds inhabiting a single bamboo species in Madagascar. The fungi are tantalizing for another reason, too: Many produce organic compounds that hold promise for medicinal application. After cataloging and DNA fingerprinting the species they find, the researchers will send samples to Barrows, who will test extracts for pharmacological activity against malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, and certain cancers.

“We chose particularly malaria, TB, and HIV because they are three diseases that are very severe in New Guinea,” Schmitt says. “The whole idea of this grant is to discover and use the natural diversity of organisms … in a way that could benefit the people of New Guinea.”

Besides offering potential treatments for illness, the researchers hope their discoveries may also offer an antidote to what ails New Guinea natural habitats: deforestation. The research site exists thanks to local landowners who banded together to protect it from logging. Discovery of medicinally valuable compounds in the endophytes’ arsenal that could be harvested without destroying the forest would provide “more incentives to conserve their natural diversity,” Schmitt says. The team hopes to engage graduate students from the University of Papua New Guinea and local landowners as partners in the study.

Schmitt is optimistic about the outcome. “We anticipate very high diversity and discovery of many previously unknown species,” she says, “which hopefully also make many previously unknown compounds.”

— Mary Hoff