By: Kyle Czarnecki
It can be easy to discount fungi as seemingly simple organisms with no profound effect on our lives. Throughout history, though, fungi have played a huge role in human civilization. Some historians even suspect that the deadly fungus Ergot (Claviceps purpurea) was responsible for the bizarre behaviors that led to the accusations of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. Fungi have also been especially crucial to the field of agriculture. Mycotoxins, toxic substances produced by fungi, are one of the biggest liabilities in the agricultural food supply and fungal diseases constantly threaten our food production as Dr. Van T. Cotter is well aware: he has made a career out of combating plant diseases.
Dr. Cotter has a foot in the soil at three of the Triangle’s top universities. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Duke University mycology lab, a volunteer helping teach mycology at NC State University, and a coordinator of fungal specimens at the UNC-Chapel Hill Herbarium. In his professional capacities at these institutions, he informally serves as a liaison among mycology researchers working across the Triangle.
The UNC Herbarium is in the process of digitizing all of its specimens and organizing its fungal collections. Dr. Cotter is instrumental to this effort and currently works as a resident expert in identifying and sorting the various fungal specimens in the herbarium and making sure the specimens are as up to date as possible. A current focus is identifying and cataloging the important type specimens. He said, “If somebody makes a new discovery it’s important to have a comparison for subsequent finds.” This careful record keeping and specimen management may not always be a glamorous undertaking but is essential for science to move forward.
He credits an early exposure to the devastating impact of plant diseases in agriculture as his inspiration for pursuing this avenue of research. “When I was in college,” he explained, “I worked in a cherry orchard and noticed how much time was spent combating the fungal infections.” This led him to pursue research in mycology. He then spent the better part of a career researching fungicides in private industry. He holds numerous patents on fungicides that are used in a variety of agricultural settings.
However, Dr. Cotter has not only been involved in the destruction of fungi; he also enjoys eating them. Many mushroom species are in high demand by the culinary industry and Dr. Cotter believes this is important. “Mushrooms have a high nutrient density; they are a good source of protein and a variety of vitamins and minerals,” he pointed out.
It is this nutritional value and fine taste that has kept Dr. Cotter busy with his most recent project abroad. Dr. Cotter never expected his study of mycology to lead him back to the country of Nepal where he had done his doctoral field research supported by a Fulbright. In the 30 years since then, the nation of Nepal has had an extensive, successful reforestation effort. This newly reforested region is ripe for the cultivation of mushrooms. The Nepalese government wants to expand this resource to commercial success for its farmers, and with the help of Dr. Cotter it is setting up a mycology lab to support mushroom spawn producers.. In a few years, when you see Himalayan Shiitake on the shelf at Whole Foods, you can thank Dr. Cotter.
Dr. Cotter is hopeful for the future of mycology, there are a lot of very exciting developments in the works. According to Dr. Cotter, fungus has great potential in many areas. Fungi can be used as a nutrient dense food source, for repair of habitat after environmental calamity, and for turning agriculture waste into usable energy. Indeed, it seems the future is high and bright for organisms that typically grow low and in the dark.