CAMDEN — For students like Ryan Pachucki, New Jersey’s Pinelands National Reserve is a living, growing classroom.
Pachucki, a senior biology major at Rutgers-Camden, is studying Neurospora, a type of fungus that grows in the Pine Barrens. He is seeking answers to many interesting and important ecological questions, such as how the fungus adapts to different environments, how it survives the winter months, and how it colonizes natural habitats after wild fire.
“In studying this fungus in its natural environment, we don’t have to travel far,” says Pachucki, a Burlington Township resident and graduate of Burlington Township High School. “It’s right here in our own backyard in the Pinelands.”
Neurospora is a model organism, which means it is extensively studied to provide insight into how other organisms work. Because scientists cannot study all fungi (there are more than 5 million species of fungi on earth), they use Neurospora as a model.
However, until recently, the fungus wasn’t widely observed in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
“I surveyed the Pinelands after wild fires and this fungus was the first microorganism colonizing the fire-scorched field,” says Kwangwon Lee, an associate professor of biology at Rutgers-Camden. “We identified few candidate fungal species in the Pinelands that appeared to be Neurospora species. Ryan performed experiments to confirm that Neurospora was the species we collected.”
In his research, Pachucki extracted more than 400 DNA strands from the Neurospora and crossed it with other fungus to observe how it interacts with other species.
“This is important because we can use this strain to test how the biological clock — the circadian rhythms — work in nature,” Pachucki says.
He was also able to observe how the microbial community is reestablished after wildfires.
“Rutgers-Camden is a research university and I wanted to come here for the opportunity to connect with professors and do this kind of research,” says Pachucki, who plans to pursue his master’s and doctoral degrees and become a college professor. “It’s been a great experience.”