An interview with Professor Lynne Boddy
Lynne Boddy is Professor at the School of Biosciences at Cardiff University and a member of the Microbiology Society. She was recognised with a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to mycology and public engagement in science in 2019. She gives talks, participates in events and is well known throughout the media. Lynne is a recipient of the Fleming Prize Lecture which acknowledges an early career researcher who has achieved an outstanding research record within 12 years of being awarded their PhD. In this interview she tells us more about her research on wood decay fungi, why the natural ecosystems of our planet would not work without fungi and why she thinks fungi is important to our environment and microbiology.
Tell us more about your research?
I have studied rotting wood for over 40 years. Perhaps a bit esoteric? Not really. After all, there are 70 petagrams (equivalent to the mass of 1,600,000 Queen Elizabeth 2 ocean liners) of dead wood globally.
Its breakdown is crucial for the release of the nutrients locked therein. Wood comprises lignocellulose, perhaps the most complex naturally produced organic molecules, and consequently decomposed by a fairly narrow range of microbes that have evolved this ability. Some bacteria have ligninolytic ability, but in most circumstances it is a set of basidiomycete fungi and a few ascomycete fungi that recycle wood, due to their enzymic capacity and filamentous penetrating body form.
Why is the study of wood decay fungi important to the environment?
Though a fungus that causes the type of decay called white rot could completely break down wood into carbon dioxide and water in the lab, in the natural environment many fungal species occupy wood, forming a mosaic of individuals, which changes over time, until the wood completely disappears. I investigate the battles that ensue between adjacent fungi. Some wood decay fungi can grow out of wood that they have colonised in search of other resources. When they encounter other fungi they will fight with them too. This includes mycorrhizal fungi. These latter fungi form mutualistic associations with the roots of plants, providing plants with water and mineral nutrients and receiving sugars in return. This is a second reason why the natural ecosystems of our planet would not work without fungi – these associations allowed plants to colonise land 450 million years ago, and about 90% of plants are still dependent on them.
When wood decay fungi find new resources, they respond by recycling their bodies from unsuccessful search directions and concentrating their efforts on successful search direction and ecological memory. Fungi operate as networks and our work on these may be useful in understanding networks used by humans. Like the rest of the natural world fungi are being affected by global change, including wood decayers and mycorrhizal fungi.
Why are fungi important to environmental microbiology?
Though the fungi with which we are most familiar form macroscopic structures visible to the naked eye, they feed at a microscopic scale, and the majority of the estimated five million species are entirely microscopic. They are extremely diverse, producing a vast diversity of chemicals, including ‘wonder’ drugs – penicillin, statins, cyclosporine, as well as many enzymes and chemicals used widely in the food industry, e.g. citric acid, and vitamins.