WVU receives NSF grant to transition large fungal collection to University of Kansas

Monongalia and Preston

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – For more than 30 years, the world’s largest collection of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi – the “good” kind essential for sustaining plant life – has been rooted at West Virginia University — but that will soon change.

Over the next several years, the tiny, soil-dwelling residents of the International Culture Collection of (Vesicular) Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (INVAM) will be relocated to the University of Kansas thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation. Matt Kasson, associate professor of Forest Pathology and Mycology, has been directing INVAM since 2017 when he took over after the collection’s founder, Joseph Morton, retired.

Kasson

It’s the world’s largest collection of these fungi, but we had a curator, but no one to really step in an administrative role as director, and I volunteered in that role to kind of shepherd the collection to whatever the next phase of its life was. Now, having not specialized in these fungi in school or any of my, you know, post-graduate work, I knew that, inevitably, the collection would have to move on in order to ensure its long terms survival.  

Matt Kasson – Director, INVAM

The collection, Kasson said, has been managed and curated by Bill Wheeler since 2017. Wheeler is an expert on the matter. In fact, according to WVU, with perpetual funding from NSF, Morton, along with Wheeler as a research technician, spent 27 years growing the collection from 187 cultures to approximately 1,000 today. 

However, Beaver will be retiring in a couple of years, with no one to take his place. That is partially why the collection is being transferred.

The University of Kansas was chosen because of Jim Beaver. He was a post-doctoral candidate under Morton and will have the capacity to handle the collection after Wheeler’s retirement.

“He’s been involved with the collection for these past several decades, too, and he is best positioned to take over this collection and really make the most use of it,” Kasson said. “You know, it’s one thing to have this collection and provide strains to researchers across the globe and do that. It’s quite another to build a research program around that.”

Kasson said WVU will duplicate all the samples and send them to Kansas. The duplication process started about a month ago, but it will be a lengthy process.

Bill Wheeler, Research Assistant and Curator in the International Culture Collection of (Vesicular) Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (INVAM) lab at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, works in the INCAM lab on the Evansdale Campus, (WVU Photo/Brian Persinger)

There are more than 1,000 samples, all of which will take about three months to grow in Beaver’s lab. Ideally, WVU will send about 80 a month, but realistically, it will be fewer.

“80 per month that would be to get like all thousand and I’m sure that we’ll do that,” Kasson said. “But you know, if there are some strains we don’t get in the first year, we could send them later.”

That’s because a successful transferral is marked by Beaver being able to regrow the samples and see how many spores it produces.

“And if that number is similar for their replicate and our replicate, then we feel good about them being able to, you know, grow them out in their conditions,” Kasson said. “Because everyone’s conditions are slightly different.”

If things go according to plan, Kasson projects INVAM will fully transition to the University of Kansas by 2024. 

Some may think that WVU transferring its collection to Kansas is a sign that something has gone awry, or that the university is no longer interested in INVAM. But, Kasson said that could not be farther from the truth.

Bill Wheeler, Research Assistant and Curator in the International Culture Collection of (Vesicular) Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (INVAM) and Matt Kasson, Director of INVAM at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, pose for photographs at the Greenhouse on the Evansdale Campus, April 26, 2021. (WVU Photo/Brian Persinger)

“On paper, it might seem like, ‘oh, the collection is being transferred, something bad happened, or there just was, you know, like a change in prioritization’, Kasson said. “And it’s not necessarily that that’s the case. It’s just that when collections — collections outlive us. So eventually, they have to move on to new institutions to persist.”

He continued.

“Morton really — and Bill did a great job. I mean, that’s an understatement. They did a great job over the last several decades of building this collection into the world-renowned collection. But now, it’s time for it to move on to the next phase of its life where it continues to grow and flourish and provide starting material for researchers globally.” 

Kasson said he’s appreciate of the NSF, Beaver, Wheeler and WVU for housing and growing INVAM for more than 30 years.

He said it’s been a “privilege” to oversee the collection for the last four years, but now is time for it to find a new home.

“At the end of the day, I’ll just say that this is about preserving the collection. I mean, WVU, the state of West Virginia, NSF, they’ve all invested, you know, hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars over the last few decades into this collection. And ultimately its survival, regardless of where it is, is the most important thing because it’s such a unique collection.” 

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