Dr. Joseph Morton, Professor Emeritus, West Virginia University
Wednesday, February 19, 2020
Dr. Joseph Morton, received his PhD at Montana State University was a professor of Microbiology and Genetics at West Virginia University for 37 years. Through funding from the National Science Foundation, he developed and curated a living international collection of arbuscular endomycorrhizal fungi (AMF) from around the world.
Fungi are everywhere and impact on every aspect of life on earth. They exist and grow as a vast network of filaments called mycelium. They establish footholds in even the tiniest and most extreme of niches. Foremost, they are the global recyclers of organic matter. All that is alive decays and from that comes renewal, an infinite perpetual cycle. Much that is environmentally toxic can be rehabilitated, even the flourishing products of new technologies. Fungi have tremendous flexibility and longevity in their ability to form extensive mycelial networks and disperse millions of spores. They provide food for creatures at all trophic levels, and they are a major source of antibiotics for combating a wide range of animal diseases. They can form associations with most living creatures, and these relationships can be either negative (as pathogens) or positive (as symbionts). As pathogens, fungi can destroy gardens, acreages of crops, poison livestock, and cause epidemics that historically have led to mass starvation and/or migrations. Knowledge of these microbes, how they live and how they behave are crucial to keeping them in check. As symbionts, virtually all plants exist in intimate and beneficial associations with fungi. The most important of these are ectomycorrhizae of many tree species, orchidaceous mycorrhizae critical to orchid seed germination, and endomycorrhizae of most other plants, including all ornamental and crop species. These fungi capture soil nutrients otherwise unavailable to plant roots, benefit plant growth, and enhance soil structure and health. These symbioses are especially important for the health and productivity of plant communities in semi-arid environments where water is limiting for diffusion of nutrients. The relationship of fungi with humans is varied and can be dramatic, from mass starvation at worst such as the potato blight in Ireland to possible contributions in the expansion of cognition and creativity in human evolution.