Haelewaters, Danny

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PhD researcher in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology
Supervisor: Donald H. Pfister, Asa Gray Professor of Systematic Botany
Harvard University, Farlow Herbarium, Cambridge MA, USA

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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?

The first experimental approach for molecular characterization of these parasitic fungi was only 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?


Next to my research job I also write popular science articles for different sources, among which Scientias.nl, Eos-magazine, and FUNGI Magazine. My journalistic activities serve me well, because I think one important task of a professional biologist is to translate scientific language into common language. A personal dream of mine is to one day publish in National Geographic Magazine, ideally with my own research on fungi. The closest I have come so far is the publication of quite a few articles in the popular science magazine EOS (appearing in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France). I maintain an active blog and Twitter account where I write about mycology, (marine) biology, and science in general. I am also a guest blogger at the SciLogs.com blog network, part of Nature Publishing Group (NPG).