The secret lives of wasps

A dumpster seems an unlikely place for a scientific discovery.

A wasp nest in a dumpster outside of Cousens Gym, however, was exactly where a group of Tufts researchers made a discovery that has added a new species of fungus to the tree of life.

Anne Madden, a doctoral student in biology, worked alongside Associate Professor of Biology Phillip Starks to lead collaborators at the University of Texas Health Science Center and Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Spain in a study to characterize the new fungus.

Madden explained that the researchers initially launched the study with the aim of investigating new environments in which novel microbes could be found to exist.

“Part of what our lab investigates is paper wasps and bees, and I came from a background in microbiology,” Madden said. “We wanted to blend our research, and realized that researchers spent so much time studying the behavior of paper wasps but not the microbes — bacteria, fungi, etc. — that exist in their nests,” Madden said.

According to Madden, scientists have classified only a tiny portion of microbes that exist. She compared her research with microbes to that of an early explorer.

“Microbiology, the field of investigating microbes in their environment, is in its nascent stage,” she explained.

Madden and her fellow researchers spent much of the summer of 2008 collecting wasp nests from nearby homes and on the Tufts campus, even advertising for wasp removal on Craigslist. Their results were published earlier this year in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.

The species of wasps that the team studied, Polistes dominulus, is a common kind of paper wasp, according to Madden.

“These wasps are invasive, and almost everyone has them in their house,” she said. “They are not that aggressive, but are considered a pest and build their nests every summer,” Madden said. “They are an easy source to collect, have never been characterized and are abundant.”

After the researchers collected fungus samples from the wasp nests, they took them back to the lab to grow so they could identify novel species.

“[The process] is similar to planting seed samples from the environment,” Madden said. “Once they’ve grown, we characterize them morphologically, chronologically and sequentially. In the process we found one that didn’t seem to match any other descriptions.”

Madden said that the new fungus grew quickly and compared it to rabbit fur because of its white and fuzzy appearance. The researchers called the species Mucor nidicola — in Latin, she said, nidicola means “living in another’s nest.”

Madden said that a grant from the Tufts Institute of the Environment (TIE) was essential in helping to fund the study.

TIE office assistant Emily Geosling Newman explained in an email to the Daily that a TIE fellowship program offers seed grants to graduate students to provide them with renewable funding for independent, interdisciplinary environmental research.

“This is an example where cross institutions at Tufts lead to the discovery of a new species,” Madden said.

Starks said that while the discovery was exciting for all involved, it is difficult to determine what significance the researchers’ findings, or the new species itself, will have.

“It is really challenging to assign specific significance to the discovery,” he said. “From an old−school perspective, I am thrilled to be part of a team that presented something novel to the international community … I never thought I’d help give name to a species.”

There are important human−derived benefits from discovering new microbes — in particular, Madden explained, a majority of antibiotics are derived from bacteria.

“Our job is just characterizing the new species,” Madden said.

“There are benefits other than just understanding the extent of life that exists around us. Fungus is alive, and fungi related to the one we described are used in a number of different fields such as medicine and are being researched for use as a source of protein for human food, for biofuel production,” Madden said. “There are many potential things that different labs that study individual applications can investigate.”

Madden’s plans for future research will, she hopes, include continuing to discover new microbes even within the same environment the researchers found outside Cousens.

“The next step is for us to continue to look to the whole world of microbes in wasps’ nests,” she said.

“It is possible that nothing more will come from the discovery, or perhaps novel chemistry will be uncovered, or a pathogenic strain will be identified … What happens next is unknown, but identifying the species was the first step,” Starks said.