In July, Sara Branco, PhD, won the Mycological Society of America’s prestigious C.J. Alexopoulos Prize. The annual award goes to the “most outstanding mycologist early in their career.” The MSA evaluates nominees primarily on the basis of the quality, originality, and quantity of their published work. Branco, an evolutionary ecologist and new assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Biology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), won the award because her “seminal research on fungal ecology, evolution, genetics, and genomics reflects her commitment to the Society’s core mission of advancing and promoting the science of mycology through education and research.”
“It’s a huge honor to receive this award,” said Branco, a member of MSA since 2005, where she served as an elected counselor as well as founder and past chair of the MSA’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
Finding Heavy Metal Fungi
Branco has been studying mushrooms since she was 16 years old.
“We only know about five percent of the world’s fungi,” said Branco, whose new lab at CU Denver will focus on the origins and maintenance of fungal diversity. “Why are there so many? Why do they live where they live? What are they doing? Those are our questions.”
She laughs as she says it. She’s aware it’s a heavy lift to answer them. To narrow the scope, Branco focuses on adaptation in extreme and harsh environments. Currently, she’s examining fungi growing in heavy metal-contaminated sites. In Colorado, home to over 23,000 abandoned mines, there’s no shortage of tough fungi to study.
“When there’s a harsh environment, you’re more likely to have reduced diversity because not all species can tolerate those conditions,” said Branco. “We select specific species to understand if and how they evolved tolerance to heavy metals. The ability to withstand high levels of heavy metals can be found in fungi that are symbiotic with trees and may play an important role in assisting forest establishment in contaminated sites.”
Before coming to CU Denver, Branco worked as an assistant professor of microbiology and immunity at Montana State University, where she studied the fungi that tolerate Yellowstone National Park’s thermal environments. Previously, she was a post-doc Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at Université de Paris-Sud in France and a post-doc researcher at University of California, Berkeley. She received her PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of Chicago where she was also a Fulbright Scholar.
This semester, Branco is teaching a graduate-level seminar class. In spring, she will also teach Introduction to Evolution for undergraduates.