Name That Fungus

Custingophora blanchettei honors professor's work in fungi

 .Some use the word fungus as an insult, but people in plant pathology circles know better.

They recognize that having a fungus named after you ranks as a distinction one must cherish. Few scientists ever get that chance. But Plant Pathology Professor Robert Blanchette recently learned that a new fungus would bear the name Custingophora blanchettei in honor of his important contributions to the study of wood-inhabiting fungi.

“It was a great surprise, but, of course, with the naming of various organisms, usually the person is dead before they name something after them,” Blanchette said. “It’s so much more fun to be alive and have something named after you!”

The story of the newly discovered fungus began in 2012, when Blanchette, along with his former doctoral students Mike Wingfield and Carlos Perez, met in Uruguay to give a training workshop on tree diseases. Wingfield (’83–Ph.D., plant pathology) is director of the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at the University of Pretoria and Perez (’05–M.S.; ’08–Ph.D., plant pathology) is on the agronomy faculty at the University of the Republic in Uruguay.

After the workshops, Blanchette, Wingfield and Perez went out collecting fungi for a biodiversity study. “We were collecting in a very different forest type where a very unusual tree native to Uruguay grows—the Phytolacca. They’re not really woody trees. They’re more like herbaceous plants that have gotten tree-size. They get to be huge trees,” Blanchette said. “It’s an unusual tree and it has unusual fungi.”

The three researchers collected specimens there. Wingfield zeroed in on a fungus that causes a stain in wood and collected a sample.

“I remember that Mike was so excited to find this,” Blanchette said. “He was looking at it and said, ‘This is new! This is new!’ ”

Blanchette, Wingfield and Perez all left with collections that interested them. That was the last time Blanchette heard anything about the newly found fungus. In the year that followed, Wingfield and Perez investigated the discovery and published the article introducing it to the world in Persoonia, an international mycological journal devoted to the taxonomy of fungi. They wanted to honor Blanchette and surprise him with the naming.

So just what is Custingophora blanchettei?

“We’re not quite sure of the biology and ecology of this fungus because it was just collected and was just identified,” Blanchette said. “The organism is something like the pathogen that causes Dutch elm disease. It is very aggressive, moved around by insects and colonizes trees quickly.”

There’s one other species in this genus, he said. In looking at phylogenic analysis, the researchers determined that it’s somewhat related to Ceratocystis, a genus of fungi with many different species. One of those Ceratocystis species causes oak wilt.

“So we know it’s in this group that’s associated with insects and is moved around by insects,” Blanchette said. “In Uruguay, where this has been found, we really don’t know what its role is in the ecosystem there.” Perez will continue working to discover that role.

And, as for the fungi’s namesake, Blanchette continues to relish being alive to enjoy the naming honor. “It’s so wonderful to have it named after me—and not be dead,” he said.

–Patty Mattern