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Looking to fungi for useful clues

Research lives: Jaswinder Kaur, Fulbright-Teagasc awardee and PhD candidate with the Shannon Applied Biotechnology Centre at Limerick Institute of Technology

Jaswinder Kaur: On the hunt for fungi that can make a difference in agriculture and industry: Photograph: Conor McCabe

You are interested in the power of fungi, can you explain?

For my PhD, I am looking at different types of fungi, including mushrooms, that grow in Ireland and seeing if they naturally make biologically active compounds that might be of use to us in agriculture and industry.

Why do fungi make these bioactive compounds?

Fungi are living organisms, and many are able to make biologically active compounds to help them survive in particular environments. For example, a fungus that grows on rotting wood in a forest might make powerful enzymes to break down the wood, and we might be able to use those enzymes to break down waste in agriculture. Or a fungus that is being attacked by bacteria might produce an antibiotic that we could use in medicine.

How do you search for these potentially useful bioactives in fungi?

I have collected about 100 different types of fungus growing naturally around Cork and Limerick – including some from the LIT campus – and I grow these fungi in the lab and screen them to see if they make interesting bioactives. I also use DNA from the fungi to identify what species they are. That means I have built up a biobank of all these fungi with information about what they are and the types of bioactives they produce that could be of interest to agriculture and food production, or to industry.

Would industry harvest these bioactives directly from the fungi?

No, it’s more likely that they would be made synthetically in a lab, but the basic lessons about how to make the compound come from the fungi, and in some cases we can see from fungal biology how to make compounds that are more useful and environmentally friendly.

When did you become interested in studying science?

“I grew up in New Delhi, India, and in the school curriculum we had to choose between science and commerce. I always had a brain for maths and science and I always enjoyed it. We moved to Ireland when I was 16 and I took science subjects for my Leaving Cert. I think I always knew I wanted to study science, so I did Pharmaceutical and Forensic Analysis at LIT and then started my PhD on fungal biology.”

What do you like to do when you are not busy researching fungal bioactives?

I really enjoy yoga, that is amazing for the mind, and I love to read. The last book I read is in the epic fantasy series The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson. ”

This month you are off to Michigan State University to continue your studies, how did that come about?

I’m really excited about that, I’m going for eight months to work in a lab there on the chemical processes of how fungi produce poisons or toxins. I am going on a Fulbright-Teagasc scholarship, which I applied for because it looked amazing to have this opportunity to study overseas. A PhD is a long process, and sometimes it is nice to change environment. Since the moment I found out that I had been accepted for the scholarship it has felt surreal, I’m getting this amazing opportunity to travel and learn about a related field and I’m really looking forward to experiencing the culture there.