Mark Rudin: The hidden role of microbes in Idaho’s diversity

Boise State associate professor of biology Merlin White works with graduate student Michael McCormick to isolate insects and arthropods pulled from the Boise River.
Boise State associate professor of biology Merlin White works with graduate student Michael McCormick to isolate insects and arthropods pulled from the Boise River. Boise State University

Idaho’s spectacular mountain ranges, deserts, plains, rivers and streams are unparalleled. From the Sawtooth Mountains to Craters of the Moon, our unique ecosystems also support an impressive list of fauna and flora, including sagebrush, syringa blossoms, white pine trees, wolves, eagles, mountain goats and several types of trout.

Miles of untouched wilderness make the entire state an incredible natural laboratory, offering answers to questions ranging from ecology and biology to meteorology, geosciences and more. But some researchers are taking a careful look at the teeming world not found in the guide books – those microbial organisms best studied under a microscope and represented across the landscape in a fascinating array of diversity.

At Idaho State University, for instance, microbiologist Carolyn Weber works to understand how environmental disturbances affect the microbial community. One recent study looked at the relationship between soil bacteria and cheatgrass invasion of the sagebrush steppe.

At the University of Idaho, biologist Larry Forney studies the community diversity and species competition of single-celled organisms called prokaryotes. And a fascinating workshop presented by the faculty team of Jill Johnson and Doug Cole titled “What Might Be Living in My Instrument?” in conjunction with the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival focused on the types of organisms that sometimes grow on or inside of musical instruments.

Even the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has an interest in the state’s microbial population. Ross Winton, a Fish and Game wildlife biologist, is investigating Pseudogymnoascus destructans, blamed for the white-nose syndrome that has killed millions of bats across the U.S. and is heading west. Given the number of bat species found in southern Idaho, this fungus could have a significant impact.

At Boise State, several faculty researchers are involved in microbial studies, including Merlin White, an associate professor of biology who focuses on the fungi that thrive inside the guts of arthropods. White is interested in learning more about why some fungi have evolved to live peacefully with their hosts while others have evolved into parasites. He gathers some of his test subjects (immature stages of various aquatic insects and crustaceans) from as close as the Boise River.

Since 2007, White’s research laboratory has become the largest repository of Trichomycetes in the world, with many samples received from his mentor, R.W. Lichtwardt at the University of Kansas. His lab also currently is part of a larger NSF-funded multi-institute initiative dubbed ZyGoLife, which is working toward a better understanding of these and other early-diverging fungi using genomic approaches.

One of White’s former students, Emma Wilson, studied the effects of agricultural fungicides in the Treasure Valley. Fungicides are vital in protecting Idaho’s crops from dangerous pathogens, but their effects on nontarget fungi are largely unknown. Because they are typically applied repeatedly throughout the growing season, they are of particular concern.

Wilson’s research showed a dramatic decrease in essential gut fungi in agricultural streams as well as a dramatic increase of pesticides. While this research is far from conclusive, it does raise several questions about the effects of the symbiotic systems that rely on fungi.

A book on microbes that was published by the Boise State School of Public Service and Division of Research and Economic Development profiles a multitude of microbes, including White’s Trichomycetes.

The book also features Boise State faculty Bill Bourland, a former vascular surgeon who is a modern-day microbe hunter on the prowl for undiscovered species, and biologist Kevin Feris, who captured, cultured and identified the microbes that are “eating” petroleum products in the soil and ground water below a Nampa service station.

Microbial research is just one element of Idaho’s newest doctoral program. Boise State’s Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, recently approved by the State Board of Education, will only increase the Gem State’s already strong reputation as a leader in the field of ecological research and provide a growing number of opportunities for cross-institutional collaboration.

The program involves the biological sciences, geosciences and anthropology departments as well as the Human-Environment Systems research center in the College of Innovation and Design. It will build on current partnerships with Boise State’s Intermountain Bird Observatory, the U.S. Geological Survey Snake River Field Station, the Peregrine Fund, and faculty members at the University of Idaho and Idaho State University, among others.

Given the pivotal role of environmental science in the health of our state, this is a program that will benefit communities across the state and region.

Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State University. His column looks at the state of scientific discovery and economic development in Idaho and beyond.