Fascinating “personal memoir about Hurricane Katrina and fungal volatiles” by Joan Bennett

There is a new paper out in Frontiers in Microbiology by fungal geneticist Joan Bennett that is fascinating: Frontiers | Silver linings: a personal memoir about Hurricane Katrina and fungal volatile.

Here is how it starts:

In August 2005 I was about to start a sabbatical leave during which I planned to work on the annotation of the genome of Aspergillus flavus, an aflatoxigenic species that had just been sequenced with funding by the U. S. Department of Agriculture. My sabbatical plans were permanently altered on August 29, 2005 when Hurricane Katrina crossed the Gulf of Mexico. The day before the hurricane, my husband and I evacuated to a small town in eastern Louisiana so we were not in New Orleans when the hurricane hit and the levees failed. About 80% of the city flooded, including our house. The National Guard barred residents from returning home. Therefore, we drove to New Jersey, where my husband had friends, and found temporary housing. The weeks after Hurricane Katrina were not easy. At first, I watched a lot of TV, getting increasingly angry at the negative media slant put on New Orleans and its residents.

When they finally returned to their house, it was a mess:

FIGURE 1. (A) The living room of the author’s New Orleans home on October 6, 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (B) Closer view of moldy books on flooded book shelf.
FIGURE 1. (A) The living room of the author’s New Orleans home on October 6, 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (B) Closer view of moldy books on flooded book shelf.


She then turned to her scientific training and carried out some studies of the fungal infestations of her house.

For me, being able to slip into my role as a professional scientist helped with the psychological shock. I proceeded to sample the house. As usual, it was very hot in New Orleans and the lack of electric power meant there were no fans, much less any air conditioning. The combination of the heat, the emotional impact of seeing my mold-ravaged home, and the terrible smell of rot in the enclosed rooms made me feel sick. Since I was wearing a mask while I sampled, I didn’t think that my physical reaction came from breathing mold spores.

She also wondered a lot about VOCs

Perhaps if I ever could re-establish my laboratory, I could devise a way of studying the toxigenic potential of fungal VOCs.

She ended up finishing her sabbatical at Rutgers and continuing to work away at the molds in her house.

I worked with a an undergraduate named Craig Pritch doing tentative taxonomic identifications of my Hurricane Katrina molds and reading the literature on sick building syndrome. At the end of the semester, Mr. Pritch submitted a short research paper with a humorous cover page showing a contaminated culture of Trichoderma, one of the most common molds found in my flooded home (see Figure 2). Despite the spelling errors, it remains my favorite-ever cover sheet for a student paper.

And then she ended up getting offered and taking a permanent job at Rutgers. And he work changed in focus to cover topics related in part to the analysis she was doing or wanted to do of her house.  I include her whole conclusion section here because I find it fascinating.

The toxicity and biological potency of a number of industrial solvents such as formaldehyde, toluene, and benzene are well known, however, far less is known about the gas-phase biomolecules secreted by fungi, bacteria, and green plants. Some of the most penetrating studies have been conducted by entomologists who have shown that many VOCs serve as semiochemicals (“infochemicals”; Davis et al., 2013). In general, the literature on biogenic VOCs is scattered between food and flavor chemistry, entomology, chemotaxonomy, and a number of other subdisciplines that do not normally “talk to one another.” Members of our laboratory, along with collaborators at Penn State in Seogchan Khan’s group, have collaborated on writing several review articles in an attempt to bring together the literature on VOCs that has been developed in mycology, entomology, building science as well as the elegant chemical studies performed by food and flavor scientists (Morath et al., 2012; Bennett et al., 2013; Bitas et al., 2013). Another interesting research development is the use of volatiles as a non-invasive method for disease detection. For example, the “volatome” of Aspergillus fumigatus has been analyzed and may provide an early diagnostic tool for systemic aspergillosis infections (Heddergott et al., 2014).

We believe that in order to bring the research on fungal volatiles to its appropriate place in 21st century biology, we need better communication between fungal biologists, molecular biologists, entomologists, chemical ecologists, toxicologists, and all biologists interested in VOCs. The traditions of our respective disciplines do not make these associations easy to achieve, nor do the discipline-based approaches of the review committees associated with most funding agencies. The scientific community has a great deal to learn about the way in which VOCs influence ecosystem dynamics, especially the microbial ecosystems that function in indoor environments. The study of gas phase molecules produced by fungi increases our understanding of how fungi interact with their environment and with each other.

For me personally, the shift in my research focus has been intellectually stimulating. Sometimes bad experiences lead to good outcomes. That is what happened to me with Hurricane Katrina. The metaphoric black clouds of my Hurricane Katrina experience have provided a scientific silver lining and an entirely new research focus. The hurricane transformed my life. My flooded home, covered with mold growth, is what inspired my new research. I have changed jobs, the place where I live, and my perspectives about fungal metabolism. Like most biologists and biochemists, previously my experimental strategies were all based on “liquid phase biology.” Even when I studied water-insoluble mycotoxins, I grew molds in liquid media and then partitioned target metabolites into liquid-phase, non-polar solvents. During the many decades when I worked on aflatoxin genetics and biosynthesis, I cultured thousands of plates and flasks of fungi in laboratory incubators. When I opened an incubator door and smelled that characteristic moldy smell, I ignored it. Now my “consciousness has been raised.” I am alert to odors of all kinds — not just fungal odors — and have come to believe that volatile phase biology is a new scientific frontier. In nature, organisms do not live alone. They live in communities where interspecific communications frequently take place through gas-phase chemical signaling, especially in terrestrial environments. The possibilities for new discoveries are enormous. Scientists merely have to “open their noses,” smell the world around them, and recognize that odorants have many undiscovered biological properties. We hope that our exploratory research will inspire others to work on volatile phase signaling in biology.

This is a really wonderful, fascinating story about life, science and microbes in the built environment.



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Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. My lab is in the UC Davis Genome Center and I hold appointments in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine and the Department of Evolution and Ecology in the College of Biological Sciences. My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis (see my lab site here which has more information on lab activities).  In addition to research, I am heavily involved in the Open Access publishing and Open Science movements.