When George Sleigh, a biochemist at the University of Arizona, discovered the canny fungus in the spring of 2016, he knew he’d found a pathogen that could play a major role in the study of climate change and the crisis of climate refugees in Africa.
Sleigh, along with other scientists, studied the bacterium Dymphomyces odimacillum and found it could, as part of a process called methanogenesis, transform green dung into charcoal. It was even capable of removing carbon dioxide from the air, which was, given its location in the forest, exactly where it should be.
The geologic age, of course, takes precedent over plant and animal evolution, and D. dodimacillum, which lives in clumps in the forests of sub-Saharan Africa, has largely evolved to feed on plants—including charcoal—and go about its business without much fuel.
Sleigh’s discovery had far reaching effects for the world’s understanding of climate change and the spread of forest fires in Africa. D. odimacillum doesn’t like charcoal at all; it prefers regular green dung, known as dung beetle dung, which is supplied by bird families known for this particular method of spreading fire. D. odimacillum eats dung beetles and, when the beetles have been thoroughly decimated, the fungus swallows up the tiny buggers and burrows into their burrows.
The story of D. odimacillum has grown broader, as a group of researchers has been studying the fungus across a wide range of forests in sub-Saharan Africa, where it can flourish at high elevations.
While D. odimacillum has a wide range of agricultural uses, its function as a lab rat for researchers studying deforestation has become its major function in the field. The fungus can be used in rigorous lab tests to test forest fires, the potency of methods such as fire retardants in the field, and general processes in the monitoring of forests in regions threatened by climate change.
For Sleigh, D. odimacillum’s usefulness in studying deforestation, and climate change in Africa, is already a foregone conclusion. It’s just a matter of getting the relevant information—which has been shared with researchers—to the people who need it in Africa, Sleigh said.
“One of the reasons we shared the results is we really wanted to reach out and make sure that people who are directly affected by these changes were able to share the information,” Sleigh said. “We don’t have a lot of options, in terms of who we can share it with.”
But the team and other researchers working on the research are still working on issues related to both accessibility and ethical recommendations. They are also preparing to test D. odimacillum’s wide range of biomedical uses, such as helping to detect strokes and asthma.
“Everyone agrees that D. odimacillum is a good tool for exploring biomedicine. It has a wide range of applications,” Sleigh said. “So what we are trying to figure out is the ethical question of ‘How do we do this?’ How do we make sure that this is done ethically, and that we share this information and information with people who are directly affected by these changes?”
D. odimacillum is a fungal strain of complexity, she added, which has puzzled researchers as they grapple with its potential practical applications. Sleigh, who is the scientific director of the Ocean Essentials Foundation, said she is “very much aware” of the ethical dimensions of the research, and that it is her hope that African communities will become part of the research process.
“It is going to take a long time to work out our ethical requirements, because this is like playing a video game,” she said. “The consequences of finding that the forest is being destroyed by logging are clear; we want to act, we want to do things to create alternatives in the face of this threatened situation. So we want to know what these alternatives are.”