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Fungal Ice nucleation: Moulding our environment?

Primary Supervisor: Dr Thomas Whale, Department of Chemistry

Secondary supervisor: Dr Ester Gaya, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew; Prof Matthew Gibson, Department of Chemistry and Warwick Medical School

PhD project title: Fungal Ice nucleation: Moulding our environment?

University of Registration: University of Warwick

Project outline:

This project will combine expertise in fungal phylogenetics and ecology at Royal Botanic Gardens (RGB) Kew with expertise in ice science at the University of Warwick to improve understanding of how fungi interact with plants, the biosphere and the atmosphere.

Pure liquid water does not freeze at 0°C. Indeed, small water volumes can be supercooled to temperatures below -40°C before ice forms spontaneously. Various substances including mineral dust, pollen grains, bacteria and fungi can induce formation of ice at much warmer temperatures than would happen in pure water, a process known as heterogeneous ice nucleation. This process plays a key role in both plant cold tolerance, as some plants survive low temperatures by avoiding ice nucleation, and in the atmosphere, where variations in temperature of ice formation can influence weather and climate by modifying the behaviour of mixed-phase clouds. Several plant pathogenic bacteria species are known to have evolved the ability to nucleate ice in order to mechanically damage the plant tissues on which they feed. It is thought that the ice nucleation ability of these bacteria also impacts atmospheric clouds and that complex interactions between atmosphere, plants and plant pathogens play a key role in weather, climate and biodiversity.

Some species of fungi are known to nucleate ice from supercooled water at very warm temperatures, but it is still unknown why fungi have evolved this ability. Like the above-mentioned bacteria, many fungi are also plant pathogens and therefore the potential impact of fungal ice nucleation on crops and the rhizosphere are of substantial interest. The interaction of fungal ice nucleation with weather, climate and the biosphere more generally also remain poorly understood.

Ice nucleation measurements in fungi haven’t been performed in a systematic way, and only a few species belonging to less than 50 fungal genera have been looked at, with just a handful of active species identified, mostly concentrated in the Fusarium genus. This project aims at screening ice nucleation activity across the fungal kingdom using an ecological and phylogenetic framework. We will assess the phylogenetic informativeness of this trait and identify potential lineages more prone to ice nucleation activity. This information will help in understanding the interaction of fungal ice nucleation with plants and the wider environment.

The recently funded fungal component of the Plant and Fungal Trees of Life (PAFTOL project at Kew will conduct whole genome sequencing of all 8,200 known fungal genera. By testing the diverse fungal specimens selected from the PAFTOL using high-throughput ice nucleation measurement techniques a comprehensive picture of the ancestral origin and genetic basis of fungal ice nucleation will be revealed, facilitating improved understanding of 1) the interaction of fungi with climate and biosphere; 2) the biochemical origin of ice nucleation by fungi, which is typically attributed to heat resistant proteins, but requires further study.


  1. Lindow, S.E., The Role of Bacterial ice Nucleation in Frost Injury to Plants. Annual Review of Phytopathology, 1983. 21(1): p. 363-384.
  2. Morris, C.E., et al., Bioprecipitation: a feedback cycle linking Earth history, ecosystem dynamics and land use through biological ice nucleators in the atmosphere. Global Change Biology, 2014. 20(2): p. 341-351.
  3. Pouleur, S., et al., Ice Nucleation Activity in Fusarium acuminatum and Fusarium avenaceum. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 1992. 58(9): p. 2960-2964.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Understanding the Rules of Life­: Microbiology

    Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

    • Ice nucleation measurements
    • Phylogenomic analysis
    • Ecological analysis
    • Proteomics

    Contact: Dr Tom Whale, University of Warwick