The genus Backusella as a test case for the discovery of Australia’s hidden biodiversity.

By 01/03/2024Current Projects
HSF 22060 | Amount: $86,048 | Project Leader: A Idnurm | Project Period: 0

A project undertaken at The University of Melbourne, and supervised by A/Prof Alexander Idnurm.

Australia is one of 17 ‘mega-diverse’ countries and is particularly renowned for its unique fauna and flora. Despite the fact that the fungi are far more diverse than plants and animals, very few endemic Australian species have been described or their distributions explored in detail. This is a direct result of a critical lack of taxonomic resources directed towards this group.

This lack of attention is despite these fungi supporting the existence of our larger more iconic organisms, particularly through interactions with roots of plants, as sources of food, and underlying nutrient cycling. This paucity in knowledge is particularly stark in the case for microfungi, species that historically have been hard to distinguish relying on morphological features.

Figure 1: Species in the genus Backusella can be identified early in the development of the asexual spore-forming structures because these curve back on themselves, a feature unique to this genus.

The Mucorales species are within a basal lineage in the evolution of fungi, and this project focuses on the discovery and characterisation of a specific genus, Backusella. The primary objective of the research is to make an estimate of the missing number of species through sampling analysis, using this one genus in the fungi as the test example.

Figure 2: Scanned electron microscope image of a pair of zygospores formed in a compatible cross between two isolates of a Backusella species.

Previous random sampling suggests that there are many unknown species of fungi in Australia; however, to date a suitable model system that could be used to estimate how many species are yet to be discovered has not been available. The objective is to test the diversity of strains and species within the new model genus for biodiversity, Backusella.

Specific objectives will be to discover and then characterize new species in terms of physiology, biochemistry and reproductive isolate towards providing the ability to make broad estimates of how much diversity may still be unknown. As a case study, the work will be able to define sampling and analytical parameters for more elaborate investigations exploring the biodiversity of fungi in Australia.