In September 1999, I collected a small heath plant from a large sandstone outcrop near the Murphy’s Glen campsite in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. This seedling had been growing in just a few centimetres of sand atop the rock. The shallowness of soil meant its root system was perpendicular to the stem, and spread out like a spider’s web from the base. Heath plants have unusual roots; they’re very fine, being only marginally thicker than a human hair. I took the plant back to the laboratories at University of Western Sydney and carefully cut these hair roots up in small pieces. I surface sterilised the pieces in bleach and placed each piece, numbered and its location in the root system recorded, onto an agar plate. From these tiny root pieces grew a host of very slow growing non-spore producing fungi. Most of these fungi were ericoid mycorrhizal (ERM) fungi – these fungi form a symbiosis with heath plants – facilitating their growth in challenging places such as acid bogs, nutrient poor sands and soils rich in metals such as cadium and zinc. Since 1999, I’ve undertaken quite a bit of work on the most abundant ERM fungus from this one seedling, and with the help of various collaborators we have observed the structures it forms in roots of heath plants, how it enhances the growth of heath seedlings and examined its carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus catabolism. It was, and still is, the most studied Australian ericoid mycorrhizal fungus.
Upon moving to CSIRO in 2007, I left the last six cultures in the fridge in Dr. Peter McGee’s laboratory and it was here that they remained until 2013 when I retrieved them on Peter’s retirement. Just two of the last six survived the long winter. In late 2013, we had some space on an Illumina run with some other samples – and we sequenced the genome of this fungus. We’ve called it ‘Cairneyella’ after the late Professor John W. G. Cairney. There’s still much to learn about Cairneyella – and I’m seeking collaborators who’d like to share these last cultures and further the body of work on this remarkable fungus.