University of Alberta Microfungus Collection and Herbarium is home to medical breakthroughs
Then the host points out the darkroom and the canisters of liquid nitrogen. You now suspect the refrigerator isn't being used to store lunches. Your suspicion this is no ordinary office is confirmed when you see what's inside the filing cabinets: tiny packets of dried mould.
The University of Alberta Microfungus Collection and Herbarium (UAMH) is the eighth-largest collection of filamentous fungi in the world. It has 9,700 living strains of yeasts, moulds and mushrooms. Its collection focuses on fungi associated with human and animal diseases, as well as those that grow on plants or live in symbiosis with them.
Living strains, which are freeze-dried or frozen in liquid nitrogen for preservation, are the preferred source for researchers, since genetic material can easily be extracted. The collection also keeps photographs, slides and a "herbarium" of dried specimens for verification and teaching. It's much easier to get a dried fungus across the border than a living one, says curator Lynne Sigler.
UAMH has also collaborated in numerous medical diagnoses of sick and dying people. In one case, UAMH received a fungus sample from Saudi Arabia, taken from a teenaged female cancer patient who had developed a brain abscess. Sigler was able to identify the extraction and show the same fungus had caused brain infections in two dogs in Oklahoma. The Saudi Arabian girl is still alive.
UAMH got its start in 1933 when Dr. E. Silver Dowding established a diagnostic service for human fungal diseases. Sigler joined UAMH as an undergraduate in 1969 under Dr. Bill Carmichael, a leader in the field.
"I fell into this collection at an early age and I'm still here. I was fortunate to find an exciting position in which I could grow and that matched my interests and abilities."
As well as her curatorial responsibilities, she teaches in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology and is affiliated with the agricultural, food and nutritional science and biological sciences departments.
UAMH is a busy place. Sigler's staff of three must manage all of its highly specialized, labour-intensive workload. They also field innumerable inquiries from the public, answering questions on air quality and - particularly in the spring - allergenic moulds. In addition to these duties, Sigler and her associates are prolific writers, conference presenters and workshop instructors.
"You never know what you're going to be doing next," says Sigler. "It's such a diverse job." Diverse, challenging - and rewarding.
There aren't very many places like it, where in an astonishingly unassuming way, people make contributions to saving lives everyday.