Microscopic marine fungi

23 June 2017

Professor Pang Ka Lai (Croucher Fellowship 2001) has worked in the area of mycology, the study of fungi, for over 20 years. Currently at the National Taiwan Ocean University, his research has focused on finding and identifying new species of marine fungi, as well as investigating their possible industrial or medical uses.

Pang's area of research holds a lot of hope for finding natural products that have the potential to be developed into new drugs. His latest research is looking at the marine fungi that thrive around a shallow water hydrothermal vent in Taiwan.

Pang was born and raised in Hong Kong attending local schools. During his final year project for his BSc at the City University of Hong Kong, Pang looked at the wood degrading enzymes of marine fungi. After presenting his work at a local mycological society meeting, Professor Gareth Jones commented on Pang’s presentation and suggested he carry on with his research. While that was the catalyst for following this area of study, it wasn’t his only reason. Under the supervision of Jones and Professor Lilian Vrijmoed during Pang’s PhD he found his own inspiration.

“While studying the phylogeny of marine fungi, and looking at them under the microscope, I found that they were very beautiful,” he says.

While Pang enjoyed his biology lessons at school, he also had a passion for learning languages.

“Those are both very different subjects, but languages were something I wanted to continue to learn as well, but I don’t have time now. If I had the chance to choose again I probably would have studied languages,” says Pang with a laugh. Luckily for the world of marine mycology his passion for languages didn’t take him away from his career as a researcher.

We can count what mushrooms we see and can record them, but there are a lot of fungi that are microscopic and you can’t see them

There are essentially two branches of Pang’s research. In the laboratory his main focus is on the phylogeny and ecology of the marine fungi that he finds, but he also collaborates with other laboratories to work on the more applied side of marine mycology. This side of research is an exciting and growing area as researchers look to find cultures of marine fungi to see what they can produce in terms of industrial or medically important substances.

Pang’s Croucher Foundation Post-doctoral Fellowship at the University of Portsmouth allowed him to look at the diversity of the local marine fungi in Langstone Harbour using both morphology and molecular techniques. By comparing the use of these methods to record the diversity of fungi, Pang found that using traditional observation by morphology alone would not show the true diversity of fungi that was present.

“We can count what mushrooms we see and can record them, but there are a lot of fungi that are microscopic and you can’t see them,” he says.

Currently Pang is in the early stages of his latest research project.

“We have done a little bit of physiology and have found that the fungi that we isolated from the hydrothermal vents can tolerate low pH and a comparatively high temperature. As fungi are eukaryotic organisms that cannot usually tolerate very high temperatures,” he says.

In the future they will use molecular techniques to look at the physiology of these fungi and hopefully find genes that could be helpful for industrial uses. They also aim to test the different fungi that they find to see their capability of degrading various types of organic matter. They want to see if the enzymes the marine fungi produce have any specific properties that help them adapt to their environment. Once they have identified the marine fungi they isolate, they will also send cultures to other laboratories to check for natural products.

While this may seem straightforward, getting marine fungi to grow in the laboratory can be tricky.

“For the group of fungi that I work on in the marine environment they mostly occur on wood. They grow much slower and they sometimes do not grow in culture,” Pang says. He often needs to try different conditions to get the fungi to grow as the marine environment is so different from the environment in the laboratory. Luckily for Pang his PhD supervisor, Jones, is still on hand to offer advice, “he has 60 years of experience in marine mycology so I can always ask him,” he says.

As Pang aims to find new species of marine fungi he is not limited to one physical location.

“I have been working on the diversity of fungi all around the world. In Taiwan, Asia, Europe, Australia. We go to different places to collect and find different types of fungi. It is good because we can travel quite a bit,” he says. “I’ve even been able to go into the Arctic Circle to find fungi. We found at least two new species,” says Pang.

In June his team will head to Sweden to collaborate with researchers at the University of Uppsala in order to collect various materials to bring back to Taiwan to hopefully identify more new species.

“Basically because fungi are heterotrophs, they grow on organic matter so when we go out we normally collect organic substrates such as driftwood, mangrove wood, macroalgae, sea grasses, and animals,” says Pang. “Sometimes we go to sandy beaches, you don’t see fungi there but a lot of wood has been buried in the sand, so we have to dig it up and bring it back to the laboratory to observe the fruiting bodies under the microscope,” he says.

Pang estimates to have found approximately 10 new species in Taiwan over the past decade, but around another 20 species worldwide over the same period. While these new species haven’t produced any natural products worth further development he has found something interesting.

“When we work on marine fungi we also work on fungi like organisms. These organisms, Halophytophthora, are more closely related to brown algae.

“We found that this group can produce polyunsaturated fatty acids,” he says. They were found to produced arachidonic acid (ARA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), both essential fatty acids that may have human health benefits with possible industrial applications. “We have a Taiwan patent and are applying for a US patent at the moment,” says Pang.

A few years ago, he was also involved in a project with Medicine for Malaria Venture, an entity based in the USA that hopes to find new antimalarial drugs. While it can be easy to find compounds that have the potential for the development of drugs, Pang says the “problem” is that they are often toxic to humans. A barrier that Pang hopes will eventually be removed by finding new compounds from new species of marine fungi.

It is exciting to see the far reaching implications of Pang’s research, from human health and disease to industrial applications. So as Pang continues travelling locally and abroad to find new species of marine fungi he knows there is still a lot to discover.

“You never know what these fungi will produce,” he says.


Professor Pang Ka Lai (Croucher Fellowship 2001) has worked in the area of mycology, the study of fungi, for over 20 years. He obtained his BSc in Biology and PhD in Mycology at City University Hong Kong. He did his Croucher Foundation Post-doctoral Fellowship at University of Portsmouth, UK on a project related to fungal identification on wood using molecular techniques. Since then, he has taken up various scientific positions in Hong Kong, Thailand and UK.

To view Prof Pang’s Croucher profile, please click here