Collaboration: Support mushrooms for young researcher

Read our interview with the first researcher to ever successfully isolate and culture an extremely rare fungus.

When Stephen Saltamachia (University of Louisiana at Lafayette) saw a mushroom growing out of an ant’s head he was hooked. The microbiology student wanted to learn everything he could about insect pathology. The problem was, no one he knew could answer his questions. Saltamachia buried himself in books until he found himself at the centre of a scientific discovery: he became the first researcher to ever successfully isolate and culture an extremely rare fungus. Once again he was in need of expert advice, see what they had to say...

ResearchGate (RG): You recently made an exciting discovery. Can you tell us more about it?

Stephen Saltamachia: I noticed a queen carpenter ant behaving strangely and so I collected her for some lab experiments. It’s not common for these ants to be by themselves in broad, open daylight, and I thought she might be infected with the “zombie ant” fungus. This fungus controls the brain of its hosts and I’d already raised some laboratory colonies to learn more about it.

A few days later the queen ant died. I was leaving town for a week so I surface-sterilized and incubated her, and when I returned her corpse was completely covered in fungal growth. That’s when I realized she wasn’t infected by the “zombie ant” fungus at all, but an extraordinarily rare one called Desmidiospora myrmecophila. It was only the fifth specimen of its kind found in the world, and because I’d captured the queen still alive the fungus was still fresh and uncontaminated. This meant I was able to culture it with remarkable ease.

ResearchGate: What led you to start a discussion on ResearchGate about it?

Saltamachia: When I discovered the fungus I saw an opportunity to do what I had been aspiring to do all along; to contribute to the scientific world with a publication of my own. But this required help. I wanted to publish a paper describing the in vitro-characteristics of the fungus. For this, I desperately needed to talk to an expert, have them read my paper and offer helpful criticism. I knew I had to look outside of my university for this because no one I had talked to about the zombie ant fungus seemed to know anything about it or could answer my questions. I suspected this would be the same for this fungus. That’s why I decided to try my luck on ResearchGate. I didn’t know what to expect having not used the website before, so I simply posted the question: “Any Mycologists in the House?” and waited for a response.

ResearchGate: Did the Q&A discussion help progress your research in the way that you hoped?

Saltamachia: Yes – I was surprised and delighted to see so many people provide help almost immediately. Many of the responses were from individuals who could not necessarily help directly, but were able to provide me with the name of a colleague of theirs who they believed could help. As a result, I have now managed to find exactly the people I was looking for, beyond even just the topic at hand.

ResearchGate: That’s great news. What happened next?

Saltamachia: One researcher suggested a name that I had seen before on several of the papers I had read regarding insect parasites. I emailed the person and before long was able to send him a draft of my paper. He provided me a clear vision of what was needed, which included some basic ITS sequencing for my specimen. Because I have not done this sort of analysis before, he even suggested that he would be willing to speak directly with faculty here at my school if necessary. Now at this point, I am thrilled to finally feel like I am on the right track. It’s a superb example of the benefits of networking in the scientific community.


ResearchGate: What are your next steps after this paper is published?

Saltamachia: In regards to this discovery, I will eventually develop a more complete profile of this fungus to serve as a base for any future research. Some of the metabolites and compounds produced by fungi possess a broad spectrum antimicrobial activity, as well as anti-tumor and anti-malarial properties. This offers an immediate, practical application for human health - especially considering the growing problem of antibiotic resistance and the need for new antibiotics. In terms of my future steps on a more general level, the goal is to contribute as much as possible to the field of science. What could be more rewarding?

Saltamachia's discovery was also reported in Newsweek (here) and The Advocate (here).

All photos courtesy of Stephen Saltamachia.