When we think of fungi, we usually think of mould on our expired bread or the mushroom we had for lunch. Yet, these fascinating organisms play a far more important role – they are pivotal in steering the Earth’s biogeochemical cycles. Despite their vital status, a lot remains a mystery, particularly about the roles of fungal communities in Arctic nutrient cycling.
Understandably, the research on Arctic fungi faces severe limitations due to its inaccessible location. However, delving into the study of these fungi presents immense potential for uncovering novel and unique metabolic pathways, which could hold significant promise across various fields, including biotechnology, the medical industry and agriculture. These fungi might also possess intriguing bioactive properties, allowing for their use as antibacterial, antivirus or anticancer agents.
This is where the work of Associate Professor Dr. Siti Aisah, a marine mycologist currently serving as the Director of the National Antarctic Research Centre (NARC), comes in.
NARC serves as a centre to coordinate polar research in Malaysia and operates under the auspices of Yayasan Penyelidikan Antartika Sultan Mizan (YPASM).
NARC’s primary role involves not only orchestrating research among Malaysian polar researchers but also fostering global connections with international entities engaged in polar studies (such as the British Antarctic Survey - BAS, and Korean Polar Research Institute - KOPRI) as well as organizing conferences, symposiums, seminars, training sessions, and talks to enrich Malaysia’s polar research community.
NARC is jointly hosted by Universiti Malaya and Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) – under this arrangement, Dr Siti Aisah will serve as the Director for NARC for a three-year term before transitioning to the Deputy Director position while the Directorship shifts to a member from UMT. NARC also assists in connecting aspiring Malaysian polar researchers with their international collaborators and provides samples from the Arctic and Antarctic for researchers who cannot conduct their expeditions to these regions.
Location of sampling sites: (A) Location of Spitsbergen Island in the Arctic (B) Enlargement of Spitsbergen Island (C) Sampling sites on the Hornsund, Spitsbergen Island.
For the research presented in this article, Dr Siti Aisah’s group studies the soil extracellular enzymes produced by fungi from the Pseudogymnoascus species that were collected at Hornsund, Spitsbergen Island in the Arctic. Soil extracellular enzymes refer to the chemicals secreted by fungi into the soil that help break down organic compounds in the soil environment. These enzymes are subjected to the chemical analysis technique known as Quadrupole Time-of-Flight Liquid Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry (QTOF-LCMS). QTOF-LCMS is a state-of-the-art technology in the field of mass spectrometry and is used to identify ionizable species present within a sample with high accuracy. The QTOF-LCMS analysis then gives a list of chemical compounds produced by that fungi organism, which can then be followed by in vitro tests to study the possibility of antimicrobial activities. In fact, the bioactive chemical named Ircinamine B, found in the sample Arctic Pseudogymnoascus HNDR16 R4-1 Sp.1, has been demonstrated to show antimicrobial activity against the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus.
The chemical structure of Ircinamine B
Besides testing for its antimicrobial activity, the effects of climate change on these polar fungi were also studied. AP Dr Sti Aisah’s group discovered that at elevated UVB and temperature levels, the fungi ceased producing conidia, their asexual reproductive units, as a way to survive. This disruption in fungi reproduction is significant, as fungi are vital decomposers in our ecosystem. If fungi cannot reproduce, this impedes decomposition, leading to soil acidity, reduced fertility and hindering plant growth. Considering that virtually all plants rely on this fungal association to thrive, a decline in fungal populations due to global warming could have severe repercussions, particularly for vital ecosystems like our tropical rainforests.
Even though this study was conducted on Arctic fungi, increased UVB and temperature levels also affect tropical fungi similarly. AP Dr Siti Aisah also highlighted the value of Arctic and Antarctic fungi as valuable models for research because they grow slowly compared to tropical fungi. This slower growth rate makes polar fungi advantageous for examining the effects of climate change.
The effects of UV exposure to fungi, showing reduced conidia (coloured green in the left image)
In conclusion, studying Arctic fungi has tremendous benefits for the health and sustainability of our planet. Understanding how these fungi adapt, survive, and interact within the harsh Arctic conditions provides a wealth of knowledge with far-reaching implications. Not only do they improve our comprehension of fungal biology, but they also provide insights into the impacts of climate change. Furthermore, the Arctic and Antarctic regions act as reservoirs for unexplored chemicals and novel enzymes with potential applications in agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and environmental conservation, highlighting the benefits of studying these seemingly remote organisms.
Associate Prof. Dr. Siti Aisah Binti Hj Alias
Institute of Ocean & Earth Sciences (IOES)
Farah Hannan Abd Nasir
A PhD student from the Physics Department who’s eager to blend science and storytelling - my goal is to make science relatable and exciting for everyone. When I’m not researching organic electronics, I enjoy playing the viola and painting with watercolours.
Siti Farhana Bajunid Shakeeb Arsalaan Bajunid
Assistant Registrar, Universiti Malaya