Fungal Hyphae on Sunflower Plant

I conduct Undergraduate Research in one of the Biology labs on my college campus and the organism of interest we study in our lab is the Sunflower (Helianthus annuus). In March of 2020, I took home a handful of our extra sunflowers to grow in my backyard. However after months of growth, I noticed that a white sticky fungus appeared on the stems and leaves of my sunflowers and soon after the leaves would turn black then shrivel up and die. This type of infection also appeared in some of the sunflowers that we grow in the greenhouse for our lab research.

When I began taking a biology of Fungi class at my university in Fall of 2020, one of our main projects was to use morphological and genetic tools to identify a fungal species. I decided to sample the fungi on my sunflower plants because I knew it would be a great way to tie in my sunflower research and my interest in fungi. When I was given the Foldscope by my professor, I thought it would be a cool opportunity to get a closer look at the morphology and gain more information on this fungi that has been giving me trouble!

Here are photos of the fungi hyphae that I took with my iPhone camera through the Foldscope. Hyphae are filamentous cells that grow apically, and interconnect to make a network called the mycelium. This makes up the main body of the fungi, as it can grow and spread quite far! The main function of hyphae is to obtain nutrients and send signals to the fungi.

As you can see, in this particular fungi, the thin strands of hyphae are microscopic and would be hard to see with just the naked eye. The Foldscope has allowed me to see size, shape and color of this fungi in more detail!

This is a photo of my fungi specimen on the Foldscope slide. Since my specific specimen was quite sticky, I used a toothpick to gather the fungi on the tip and then gently spread it onto my slides. I found that the more specimen present on the slide, the more difficult it was see individual hyphae through the Foldscope. Most of the photos I took was using the half of the slide with the smallest amount of fungal specimen. Therefore, one tip I have when using the Foldscope for fungal discoveries, is to make sure you have a small amount of specimen per slide, and that it is spread thinly over the slide!

Since I am still currently conducting genetic research on this fungi, I am unsure of what this fungal species is! When it comes to fungal relationships with plants, mutualistic and parasitic relationships are both very common. Mutualism is when two organisms receive benefits from the other. Whereas parasitism is when one organism (the parasite) lives on another organism (the host) and the parasite gains a benefit at the cost to the host. After looking at this relationship, it is clear that this mystery fungi has a parasitic relationship with my sunflower plants, because the fungi is spreading its growth at the cost to the health of my sunflowers.

Until I have finished analyzing the DNA of this fungi, I wont know what exactly is harming my plants and how to deal with it. However, Foldscope has helped me expand my morphological knowledge to try and identify it!

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