March 06, 2008

Mycorrhizal Hypogeous Ascomycete

I've spent the last several hours working on a presentation I'm giving for a seminar next week on host switching in a clade of Cordyceps between cicadas and Elaphomyces. It's a unique situation in the world of symbiosis; some symbionts will switch between closely-related hosts and some parasites will utilize phylogenetically distant hosts at various stages in their lifecycles (e.g., Trematoda like liver flukes inhabit snails, fish and humans at various stages of development). For a symbiont, even a parasite, to make the leap entirely from one kingdom to another is unique as far as I know, though. Going from an insect host to parasitizing another fungus is pretty remarkable. Fungi do remarkable things. That Elaphomyces is also a mutualist on host trees also makes this interesting; a parasite that feeds on a mutualist but not its host based on a relationship earlier in its evolution with an entirely different organism that was essentially a parasite on the same host. Great stuff.

The really fun part, though, is describing Elaphomyces in as few words as possible. It turns out to be a mycorrhizal hypogeous ascomycete. Is that poetry or what? It simply rolls off the tongue. Say it with me now... mycorrhizal hypogeous ascomycete.

Three words can sometimes say what would otherwise take an entire paragraph. If I were to define Elaphomyces without using the $10 scientific jargon, I'd have to say that it was a fungus that produces its spores in sacs, grows underground, and lives in a mutually beneficial relationship with trees wherein it forms an intimate association with the roots which enables it to pass soil nutrients to the tree and receives sugar from the tree that it produces by using light energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into glucose.

Instead, I can just say "mycorrhizal hypogeous ascomycete" and be done with it. Poetry, that.

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