Plight of Fungal Genetics Stock Center: NSF-funding declined

Last fall, I wrote with a great deal of concern about the deleterious effect of the sequestration on Federally-funded Biomedical Research in the United States, including real-life examples of scientists in jeopardy highlighted in the Huffington Post. In another post, I pointed out how sequestration-mandated cuts to funding from the US National Science Foundation (NSF), coupled with the ill-conceived government shutdown, were seriously imperiling invaluable and irreplaceable scientific research. Although the shutdown was rescinded by the third week of October 2013, it left behind grave concerns about long-term fallouts, especially in less visible areas associated with scientific research in this country.

FGSC Logo; designed by K. McCluskey; executed by Karen Chinn of the KUMC IT department

This morning brought another piece of bad news. This concerns a valuable resource for the microbiology, molecular biology, and ecology researchers, the Fungal Genetics Stock Center (FGSC), currently hosted at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Missouri at Kansas City. The FGSC has been supported for over 50 years by NSF; in January 2014, their funding proposal was declined, and and for the first time since 1960, the sustenance of this resource will not be funded by an NSF grant.

Why is that worthy of concern? I am glad you asked. The FGSC is what is known as a "Living Stock Collection" (LSC) for fungal micro-organisms. Such LSCs are responsible for providing a crucial infrastructure for biological and ecological research, namely, a reliable supply of corresponding living organisms and biological materials for research.

Biological repositories such as LSCs for micro-organisms perform an important function. Whether collected from natural environments or genetically manipulated in the laboratory, these micro-organisms, once placed in the repository, serve as a snapshot in time and genetic character; the stored microbial strains, along with this information about them, are both valuable biological resources which are gainfully exploited by researchers, in applications ranging from taxonomy, industrial and agricultural applications, ecological and pharmaceutical research - including research in infectious diseases. Some LSCs also carry related biological materials such as genomic DNA, gene libraries, proteins and other enzymes derived from these microbes, and so forth. However, LSCs are not only passive repositories of biological organisms or materials, but also tasked with other important, related functions, such as (a) sustenance, or regular maintenance of the collection, (b) expansion of the collection, as well as (c) innovation and development of methodologies that facilitate research.

One example of such an LSC is the wildly popular American Type Culture Collection (ATCC) located in Manassas, Virginia. The ATCC maintains its large stock of micro-organisms; receives (and catalogs) samples of original micro-organism isolates as well as their genetic mutants; often identifies and characterizes the strains of these organisms, and tests various media and conditions for their optimal growth; and most importantly, cross-references all that information in a form that is readily available to the researchers via their website; the organisms themselves, as well as related ATCC-tested media and reagents, are available to the researchers for a fee. The reputation of ATCC as the provider of impeccable quality stock organisms attracts a premium in the fee structure.

The FSGC (for more information, see McCluskey and Wiest, 2011), established in 1960, focuses on genetic systems, and is home to close to 40,000 fungal strains, including gene deletion mutants, as well as - most importantly - 19,000 strains of Neurospora, a spore-bearing fungus, that was at the heart of the Beadle and Tatum experiments leading to the original One Gene One Enzyme hypothesis of 1941. Although this hypothesis has since been refuted, modified, reinterpreted and now considered inadequate, those experiments brought a fundamental turning point in the understanding of genetics. One initial goal of FSGC was the preservation of the original Neurospora strains used by Beadle and Tatum, so that researchers of the future could use them. FSGC also contains a large collection of Aspergillus nidulans, a mold that has been used widely for studying eukaryotic cell biology, and also as a source of anidulafungin (a type of antifungal agent).

The NSF has so long been supporting close to 20 LSCs with mostly a genetic emphasis, including the FGSC (via grant 742713). But now, this important funding source is drying up. Efforts to initiate and maintain crucial resources such as the LSCs need public funding, because independent, non-profit organizations (such as the ATCC) are unable to deal with the growing need for a large number of unique biological micro-organisms and materials that are used in modern scientific research, and for-profit companies inevitably focus on areas with clear shorter-term cost-benefit advantages. To quote Dugan et al., from a 2011 commentary on this issue (emphasis, mine):

Government and non-profit entities (the latter usually receiving government assistance) have been critical for creating and maintaining these collections of living organisms, including performing the research necessary to characterize and preserve the germplasm itself. These ‘germbanks’ are, like bank accounts, savings for both anticipated and unexpected contingencies. In plant research, they provide potential sources of resistance to emerging pests and diseases, genes for drought hardiness or useful metabolic products, as well as other desirable traits. However, these traits are often not readily apparent, and often occur in a genetic background of less desirable properties. Microbial collections are similarly valuable in providing validated material for testing new plant varieties, new anti-microbial drugs, for developing drug targets, and often provide genetic material for development of new enzymes used in every aspect of modern life. Because the value of such biological material is often in its hidden potential, truly comprehensive collections are often maintained at public expense or receive governmental subsidies. While preservation of natural environments is an important factor in preserving biological diversity, it is complementary to and not redundant with ex situ biological repositories. [...]

In spite of their sometimes insecure budgets, these large biological collections are supremely important. Biological materials from public germplasm collections have been decisive for three of the most significant innovations in modern biotechnology. These innovations are: (i) the commercial production of antibiotics and other drugs, pioneered by penicillin production; (ii) the Green Revolution, commencing with semi-dwarf wheat varieties and (iii) modern molecular genetics, made feasible by the polymerase chain reaction.

Currently, FGSC does have some funding via NIH (which is not going to be available for too long, according to NIH). However, the host institution (University of Missouri) has declined support, which was a factor in FGSC's NSF grant proposal being rejected. They are trying hard to identify alternative funding mechanisms, and may have to push a part of their collection to other repositories. They are also seeking donations. The 2013 budget report also revealed an unfortunate occurrence: apparently, the FGSC has over $150,000 in unpaid invoices since 1998!

But, ultimately, an effort of this scale and importance cannot be sustainably developed and maintained by odd private funding here and there. A mechanism for securing public funding via the government is of paramount importance. In a Nature News report from last month, Monya Baker highlighted the cash-strapped condition of several biological resource centers around the country. It would indeed be a shame if the government funding agencies fail to realize the fundamental significance of resources such as FGSC and take up policies which negatively impact their smooth-running, and by extension, the quality of scientific research in this country.

Image source: FGSC Logo designed by Kevin McCluskey, Director; executed by Karen Chinn of the KUMC Information Technology department

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