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A High Demand for Fungi in ARSEF Collection

By Luis Pons
April 7, 2003

How highly would you value a space that houses at least 6,500 individual fungi?

Agricultural Research Service insect mycologist Richard Humber considers his space priceless. He's curator of the Agricultural Research Service's Collection of Entomopathogenic Fungal Cultures (ARSEF) in Ithaca, N.Y.

It's easy to agree with Humber, once you realize that ARSEF is the largest collection of its type in the world. It houses specimens vital to the protection of important plants from destructive and invasive insects, mites, spiders, nematodes and other invertebrates. In fact, it is one of the world's centers for acquiring and distributing fungal strains for use as possible biological control agents. These could help replace pesticides, many of which have been phased out because of environmental concerns.

Among Humber's samples, most of which are kept inside three liquid-nitrogen tanks at a temperature of -196 degrees Celcius, are isolates from more than 425 fungal species from every continent. Represented are 1,400 different locations and 1,000 different hosts--a high proportion of all fungal species known to affect insects.

It is a complex facility equipped to examine and isolate specimens and to identify and distribute them. Shipping, receiving, and cataloging are as big a part of the operation as is research. Humber collaborates with scientists from more than 80 nations, including Brazil, China and Russia.

The lab has its rare specimens, including the only known collected samples of Neozygites tanajoae, a significant pathogen of cassava green mites in South America.

However, it is the common fungi that are most valuable because they have the widest host range and are easiest to grow, formulate and apply. Within this group are Beauveria bassiana, probably the most important fungus in the collection. Strains of it have infected nearly every insect pest against which it has been tested.

More information about ARSEF can be found in the April 2003 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.