Visibility is such a great obsession with us, humans! But the world knows little about that. Think about it: how long has the eye–as a biological structure– been around? And what does it really help with, for all its beautiful and mysterious construction? For organisms like us, who move in the curiously-ordered universe of meter-scale, specific shapes mean much, often the difference between life and death (think of our acuteness in detecting minor shape changes in someone’s face); but for most of life, who operate at time- and space-scales very different to ours? Do they care about the visibility of things?
The Laboratory of Microbial Ecology is focused on a relatively small segment of the very large and disparate group of invisible life forms we call “microbes”. We work with eukaryotic microbes, and we are most focused on those eukaryotic microbes living in terrestrial ecosystems. That would mean the unwieldy and multifarious collection of life forms we call fungi.
In those terrestrial ecosystems we ask simple questions: where are microbes? How many of them? These are the basic questions of ecology: establishing patterns of abundance and distribution of organisms. For traditional ecologists, there was no question about the identity of the organism at stake: in a given place, deer are deer and wolves are wolves. Not so for microbes, where a given organism can take multiple shapes (for example filamentous fungi turning into yeasts and viceversa; spores of various kinds can lead to multiple variations on the hyphal theme, and so on), and indistinguishable cellular structures can belie quite different phylogenetic and ecological characters.
Our current attempt to deal with this problem is to develop methods and instrumentation to allow real mapping, at geographical scales, of microbial organisms, with DNA-sequence specificity.