Dr. Wendy Untereiner

Research Involves

Employing molecular techniques to examine the abundance, diversity, and systematics of the microfungi ascomycetes.

Research Relevance

The research is leading to a better understanding of the abundance and diversity of microfungi that degrade cellulose and keratin in forest ecosystems.

Cellulose – and Keratin-Degrading Microfungi: Indicators of Ecosystem Integrity

It is known that microfungi that degrade complex plant-derived and animal-derived polymers, such as cellulose and keratin, play key roles in nutrient cycling, the production of humus, and the health of forest ecosystems. Little is known, however, about the diversity of these microfungi or the effects of disturbing their communities.

That’s why the research of microbiologist Dr. Wendy Untereiner is so important. As the Canada Research Chair in Resource Management and the Environment, she studies the biodiversity of cellulose-degrading and keratin-degrading microfungi in forests, and explores how abundance of forest microfungi and their species diversity correlate with the disturbance and the diversity of plants and animals.

In her research, Dr. Untereiner focuses on the dung-inhabiting and soil-inhabiting ascomycetes, using these microfungi as indicators of ecosystem integrity. Employing both DNA sequence and classical techniques, she enumerates and characterizes the ascomycetes and tries to estimate their species diversity and numbers. She is also providing more comprehensive phylogenies (the lines of evolutionary development) for some of their groups. Given that only 5 percent of an estimated 1.5 million species of fungi have been discovered thus far, Dr. Untereiner’s work is contributing greatly to our understanding of fungal biodiversity and it is helping to fill existing gaps in culture collections.

Studies, such as these, provide vital information for the conservation and management of forest ecosystems. Ultimately, Dr. Untereiner’s research may lead to to the identification of habitats in need of protection and provide the impetus for establishing the total inventory of the fungi of a single Canadian ecozone.