Fungi guy - Mont Alto professor knows his mushrooms

January 24, 1998

by Kevin G. Gilbert / staff photographer

click below for larger image


Staff Writer

MONT ALTO, Pa. - There's a mushroom growing in Michigan that has covered more than 38 acres so far and which, scientists who checked its DNA said, is more than 1,500 years old.

It's not the biggest mushroom, said C.B. Wolfe, professor of biology at Penn State Mont Alto.

"There's a bigger one in the Pacific Northwest," he said.

Wolfe, 52, knows his onions about mushrooms. His lab on campus is jammed with a collection numbering more than 67,500 specimens. Some are more than a century old. They come from every continent.


He said there are about 57,000 known species of fungi with more being named by scientists every day. "There could be three times as many," he said.

Wolfe has identified and named more than 20 species himself, including one that he found on the campus. He named it after the school.

Most of his collection came from University Park, the Main Penn State campus, in 1990. Wolfe had bins with tract doors built to hold the hundreds of cardboard boxes and large folders that contain the specimens.

The collection was amassed by the botany department at the main campus beginning in 1872.

"It was a time when botanists were going around the world documenting the species on the planet. It eventually reached the point where no one was taking care of it. It became an orphan collection," Wolfe said.

University officials didn't know whether to put it into storage or give it away, he said. The New York Botanical Gardens and the National Fungus Collection of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Md., wanted it.

"It came to Mont Alto because I'm here," Wolfe said. "I'm the most qualified person to be its curator."

Wolfe gets requests for specimens from all over the world.

"The scientific community knows it's here. I send a lot of specimens to researchers," he said.

He spends about half of his time teaching courses like introductory biology, economic botany, evolution and cell biology and the rest on fungi research.

Wolfe said less than 30 known species of mushrooms are poisonous to humans. Only about a half dozen species are grown commercially for food.

Naming a new species is involved and complicated. After finding one research is needed to see if it has been named before. Publications like "The Index of Fungi," which is updated twice a year, is a good source, Wolfe said.

A manuscript is written and sent to other scientists for peer review. The last step is naming the mushroom, usually a name that only a scientist could love. Wolfe named the mushroom he found on campus Xanthoconium montaltoense.

Wolfe is a North Carolina native. He earned his Ph.D from the University of Tennessee. He lives in Waynesboro, Pa.

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