Haelewaters, Danny

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Laboulbeniales (Ascomycota) are parasitic fungi that are attached to the outer surface of invertebrates, mostly beetles and flies. Unlike the well-known mushroom-structure, Laboulbeniales are microscopic organisms of 0.150-1 mm in length, rarely more. Successful establishment of the parasite requires both the presence of a suitable host and favorable environmental conditions for the fungus. Laboulbeniales exhibit great host specificity, with a ranging host spectrum from one to several species. Although already discovered in 1850, the Laboulbeniales are perhaps the most intriguing and yet least studied of all insect-associated parasitic fungi. What I'm interested in is the relationship between the parasites and their hosts. Are closely related parasites more dependent on their hosts or on the habitat the hosts occupy?

Molecular studies of Laboulbeniales so far have proven to be challenging for the following reasons:

  • the microscopic size of the individual organisms, referred to as thalli (150-300 μm);
  • thalli require micromanipulation techniques in order to remove them from their hosts;
  • thalli are heavily melanized and difficult to break open;
  • the outer envelope comprises an adhesive mucilaginous component interfering with centrifugation;
  • recalcitrance to axenic culture.

The first experimental approach for molecular characterization of these parasitic fungi was presented in 2001. This technique has further been developed into a reliable molecular protocol, currently providing an unprecedented opportunity to finally start resolving species-related taxonomic problems, among these that of "position specificity" – the frequently occurring phenomenon of species having unique morphological features as well as strict occurrences at specific positions on the body of the host. In my research so far, I have primarily focused on studying diversity based upon morphological features (i.e. finding new geographical records and describing new species). I realize, however, that in order to answer a whole number of unsolved taxonomical and ecological questions in Laboulbeniales, I need to shift my focus to molecular evolution. Molecular data are filled with evolutionary footprints that may help answering one of the main questions we have: when did the lineage of Laboulbeniales evolve?