Ocean Blog

UH Mānoa Botanists Discover New Fungi Species in Coral Reefs

July 15, 2017, 10:01 AM HST
* Updated July 12, 6:18 PM
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Rebreather diver and Pisces V sub collecting coral and macroalgae. Credit: Robert K. Whitton.

University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa researchers have discovered potentially hundreds of new species of fungi in the dark depths of the ‘Au‘au channel coral ecosystem off Maui.

The reef, known as Mesophotic coral ecosystems (MCE), are generally found at depths of 130 to 500 feet and host abundant species of plant life as well as new species of fish. Recent technological advances have made these mysterious reefs more accessible, revealing a stunning amount of biodiversity as well as new species and behavioral interactions to scientists.

Using the Pisces V submersible vehicle, the UH Hawai‘i Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL) collected native algae from MCEs in the ‘Au‘au channel. Benjamin Wainwright, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral botany researcher, worked with a team of researchers to determine which species of fungus were associated with native algae using DNA sequencing.

Fungi have been found in almost all habitats on Earth, including in deep and shallow water corals, marine sponges and other invertebrates. However, the newly discovered fungi were found living in association with algae.

Manipulator arm of the Pisces V sub collecting algae in ‘Au‘au channel. Credit: HURL.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first documented evidence confirming fungi in MCEs,” said Wainwright.


The team also found that 27 percent of the species detected in deep ocean environments are also found on rainforest plants in Hawai‘i.


“Finding such high overlap of fungal diversity on terrestrial plants was surprising,” said Anthony Amend, senior author of the study and UH Mānoa associate professor of botany. “Mesophotic reefs are as dark as it gets where photosynthesis is still possible, so to find the same species of fungi on forest plants illustrates the remarkable ability of some fungi to tolerate, and thrive, in extremely different habitats. This ecological breadth is something that seemingly sets fungi apart from other organisms.”

According to scientists, fungi associated with plants provide numerous benefits to society. For example, research has shown that fungi are useful in bioremediation efforts like oil spills and industry waste treatment, and can break down plastic waste.

Further study is needed to determine whether the fungi have a pathogenic, symbiotic or benign relationship with their algae hosts.


“Further, we don’t currently know what metabolic capabilities they have that may prove to have medical or environmental applications,” said Wainwright. “We know other undiscovered species are present in these ecosystems. Unfortunately, if we do not look now we may miss our opportunity to benefit from them and conserve them.”

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