Katy Lazarus

Student Mentor Award Spotlight: Katy Lazarus

Katherine Louise Lazarus (Katy) is a 2nd year Masters student at the University of Florida with a fierce love for hidden fungi. Originally from Novi, Michigan, Katy sought her graduate work after studying the Cryptomycota with undergrad advisor Tim James. She now works in the lab of Matthew E. Smith, studying the molecular phylogenetics of the mycoparasite Syncephalis (Order: Zoopagomycotina, Family: Piptocephalidaceae). Syncephalis attacks several common terrestrial fungal saprotrophs, like Mucor, Rhizopus, and Mortierella, and can be isolated from soil and dung. However, the genus is often missed in molecular surveys for fungal biodiversity, because it is an obligate parasite and requires co-culturing. Katy has isolated many of her own isolates, and has designed Syncephalis specific primers to study the phylogenetics of this intriguing fungus.

In 2014, MSA awarded Katy a Mentor Travel Award to present a poster titled “Systematics and ecology of Syncephalis, a genus of ubiquitous mycoparasites.” The poster described a phylogeny she built using 28S gene data for approximately 20 Syncephalis isolates. Katy discovered some species such as S. nodosa form relatively diverse species complexes. Also, some other species like S. plumigaleata appeared in separate places in the phylogeny, indicating cryptic phylogenetic diversity, or, potentially, misidentifications. When she compared her ITS data with everything in GenBank, she found no closely related ITS sequences, despite many recent fungal diversity molecular surveys. Syncephalis are quite common and likely occur globally, but Katy believes current environmental sequencing methods often fail to amplify them.

Next fall, Katy will begin her PhD in the same lab, Matthew Smith’s, at the University of Florida. Using next generation sequencing, she plans to probe for new fungal phylogenetic diversity in the environment, on a large scale. Many strange divergent clades are hard to isolate DNA from, because they are either physically tiny (i.e. scarce DNA to start with), or are very tightly associated with symbionts, and are thus hard to physically separate. Katy likely faces unknown technical challenges to explore these organisms, and will need to develop specialized culturing or targeted sequencing. Despite the challenges that await her, Katy is excited for all the room for discovery!

Q: What do you do in your free time?
A: I play roller derby on the Gainesville Roller Rebels. I’m usually a Jammer, which is the player that tries to avoid getting hit by blockers, and laps the other skaters for points. My derby name is Feyd-Wratha, a reference to one of the antagonists from the classic science-fiction book Dune! So far I’ve only broken a couple ribs ☺

Q: What is your favorite edible mushroom, and what do you like about it?
A: Morels. First of all, they look really awesome. Also, while I think finding most edible mushrooms feels like a treasure hunt success, finding a mega flush of morels is unreal!

Q: Do you have any pets?
A: Just my 3-4 dozen Syncephalis cultures. My housemate also has a 3-legged puppy pit mix.

Q: Any crazy stories from research, in the lab or field?
A: The time I went on a legendary morel-hunting trip with the James lab and we found over 5000 huge black morels at a burn site in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I think we got there right at the start of the fruiting explosion, because there were so many mushrooms to pick, my back and quads killed by the end of the weekend! I had a surplus to sell to restaurants and give to friends, and I still have a stash dried from that trip.

By Katy Lazarus & Cat Adams