Biological Sciences Professor Carol Lauzon is partnering with NASA biologist Ken Cullings to study the foot-size fungi Pisolithus tinctorius, also known as Dead Man’s Toe. Cullings was the first to look for answers as to how Dead Man's Toe survives in nutrient-deficient environments.

Lauzon and Cullings are studying the origin, evolution, and functional diversity of bacteria found inside the sulfurous membrane of the fungus. Advanced technology is used to amplify and sequence genes, providing clues to their origins. The microbes are estimated to be 3.5 to four billion years old. Some do not appear to have evolved from any known organism.

Identifying how these extremophilic microbes create self-sustaining energy from the chalky, acidic landscape—found in Yellowstone Park geysers and the thermal lands of New Zealand—opens up untold possibilities, including discovering life on other planets and growing food in outer space.

Cullings says the project “provides a new model for how life might have survived on Mars. Something like this [fungus], which adapted to the harshest and driest environments, could easily survive in such normally inhabitable zones.”

The three-year joint research project is funded by a $1 million NASA grant. The project also creates opportunities for Cal State East Bay graduate students such as Kaushalya Tillakarantha and Charles Richard to develop research skills. Julia DeSimone, a research associate in NASA’s Ames Research Center, notes that scientists would normally need to explore Earth’s previously uncharted territories in order to find new life.

“The realization that new life can still be found in common places is amazing,” DeSimone says. “This project has expanded my horizons by allowing me to explore different techniques in genomics and discover new life in unexpected places.”