Buttered Bread Biodiversity

There I am, just another day at the office, working with my Young Canada Works Intern, sorting through plant specimens. One of our wonderful Interpreters, Shelia, finds me in the back work room working and informs me of 3 UBC undergraduate students wanting to access our fungal collection. Since my colleague who would normally take this question is on vacation, I now put on my fungal thinking cap and go see if I can help. They ask if they might be able to take a few pictures of fungal species that were used in a research paper they had read for a group project they were working on. They had just finished what they described as a very informative and interesting interview with one of the researcher authors, Dr. Mary Berbee. Dr. Berbee just happens to be our Fungal Curator and she had suggested they go to the Museum to see the real species, in person.

OK, this request seems easy enough. I start opening the cabinets, and looking through the collection, but I just can’t find any species they were looking for. I keep looking, and looking, but nothing, not a one!? Why? I ask them to wait. I quickly go back to my office to look up in our database (over 560,000 records of plant, algae, and fungi) to see if there is a note of their location in our collection. Again, I quickly search one, two, three scientific names in our database. We don’t have any representatives of these species in our collection. Why? I quickly do a Google search for these same species names. Ah, they are yeast! We don’t have many specimens in our collection of yeast, as they require specialized housing.

I finally did find a few specimens in our database in our collection of fungi species they were looking for so I head back to the Museum floor to find the specimens to show the students. I now found the cabinet that housed the species they were looking for and behold! This is what we found…

Buttered bread! That’s right, one-month-old bread with butter is this fungi’s habitat!

Aspergillus repens – I love the butter stains on the packet.

Aspergillus repens – I love the butter stains on the packet.

And this is why I love working in a Biodiversity Natural History Museum. There I am, sorting through my beautifully smashed vascular plants (oh sorry I mean ‘gently pressed’) and now I am looking at a Museum specimen of buttered bread fungus! It astounds me every day, how biodiversity comes in all shapes, sizes and grossness factors. My job is never boring, as every day is a new discovery including the beautiful, weird and disgusting (My vote, the beetle colony that eats the meat off the bones in the Tetapod collection, disgusting!).

With over 750,000 specimens in our herbarium and over 2.1 million within the whole Beaty Museum, you never know when you will find a piece of ‘buttered bread fungus’ that is not to be discarded into the food recycling bin, but to become part of our collection and our Canadian heritage. That’s right, you heard me correctly, your Canadian heritage. This might sound weird, but it is true. Just like old photographs, letters, paintings, or statues remind us of our heritage and are stored in our archives, this piece of bread and butter fungus also tells us a “piece” (get it?) of our past.

Dr. Scott Redhead from 1992 in the Carmanah Valley, Vancouver Island, holding a new species of mushroom later described as Phaeocollybia redheadii L.L. Norvell

In UBC’s history, this specimen just happened to be collected in B-4 huts, which were considered the temporary buildings that first made up UBC campus 100 years ago and happens to be where our Museum stands today. This specimen also tells us the history of what Dr. Scott Redhead, now Research Scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and what he was doing during graduate school at UBC back in 1970. We know the exact day he collected this month-old bread and butter fungi in the shared graduate offices, which were notoriously disgusting places. This is where I imagine (like I imagine so many fungal finds to play out) something is left, forgotten, and sits rotting away in a corner, and then a curious person comes along, who thinks, “hey what’s that? Let’s put it under a microscope.”

So what some of you might think as ‘gross’ or ‘disgusting’, you can rest assured knowing that we are keeping this ‘buttered bread fungus’ preserved for the future generations of researchers to either call us geniuses, as it will hold a cure in the future to save man kind or they will see us as crazy for storing just a piece of rotten toast.

And at the end of the day, the only wisdom I could pass on the students after we laughed a bit and they took their pictures, is “always tell your mother (or dorm mate) that when you leave food lying around or when you don’t do the dishes, it’s not because you are lazy or disgusting person, it’s because you’re doing science!”