Meet Dr. Rohit Sharma: Mycologist at NCMR, NCCS Pune

Dr. Rohit Sharma is a fungal taxonomist working at NCMR, NCCS Pune. He has been working in this field from last 15 years. He has identified 2 novel genera and 11 novel species of fungi. It was a great pleasure to interact with Dr. Sharma and find out more about him and his work.

Kranti: What motivated you to enter into the research field of fungal taxonomy?
Dr. Sharma:
I think it all started quite early when I used to go for sampling with my father, a Plant Pathologist at J.N. Agriculture University, Jabalpur. I used to go on collection trips with him during my school and college days to collect fungi infecting crops and wild plants and initial interest developed from there. During this period, I also got an opportunity to meet Dr. Kalman Vanky, expert in smut fungi and got opportunity to see his dedication towards the field of smut taxonomy. However, the actual involvement started when I began my doctoral work under Dr. Akhilesh K . Pandey and Dr. Ram C. Rajak whose lab was known to work on diversity and taxonomy of fungi. Here, I could get experience on entomopathogenic fungi, pathogenic and saprophytic micro fungi, mushrooms and yeasts. I developed a lot of insight in the lab under their guidance. Regular interactions helped to understand basics and the lab was rich in literature (monographs, journals and manuals) which usually is a bottle neck in the morpho-taxonomy of fungi. In the present organization as a curator of fungi, I got an opportunity to handle many fungi (yeasts, mycelial fungi and mushrooms) that helped in the development of the expertise in fungal taxonomy and systematics including polyphasic taxonomy.

Kranti : Why it is important to study fungal taxonomy?
Dr. Sharma: Fungi are hyper-diverse group of organisms. So far, many have been discovered but many are still to be discovered. Till now, about 1,20,000 fungi are known and researchers are discovering many more with an annual rate of approx. 1000 fungi. Based on the environmental sequence/ metagnomic data, it is now estimated that 22-38 lakhs fungi are yet to be discovered which makes it important to study the fungal diversity and taxonomy. Moreover, since they play an important role in environment and industrial biotechnology, it is important to explore, identify and subsequently study for their bio prospecting. Moreover, human and plant pathogens are increasing day by day and many environmental opportunistic pathogens are causing infections. Hence, it becomes important to have their authentic identification and proper classification for better management. The fungal taxonomy is complex and includes species specific morphological and physiological characters and intraspecific variation. The DNA-based taxonomic studies have helped to resolve many taxonomic problems and describe several cryptic species and are considered more stable than morphological characters.

Kranti: How many fungi you have collected and identified till now?
Dr. Sharma: So far we have collected and identified more than one thousand fungi from Lonar lake-Maharashtra, Famlong Lho-Sikkim, Achanakmar Sanctuary- Chhattisgarh, and other sites of India. They have been isolated from soil, litter, insect gut, sediments, water and as plant endophytes. We at NCMR-NCCS have described 2 novel genera (Matsushimamyces and Alanomyces) and 12 novel species, viz., Naganishia indica, Coniochaeta dendrobiicola, Leucosporidium himalayensis, Aureobasidium tremulum, Matsushimamyces bohaniensis, Alanomyces indica, Nothophoma raii, Curvularia lonarensis, Arthrinium gutiae, Pyrenochaeta telephoniae, Chaetomium jatrophae and Arthrinium jatrophae.

Kranti: What is your contributing role in services at NCMR?
Dr. Sharma: At present, I have been working as Curator-Fungi and looking after more than 15,000 fungal cultures preserved at our collection. My earlier work mostly was related to development of fungal culture collection at NCCS-NCMR, development of protocols, training human resource and undertaking basic research. So far, we have processed more than 2500 fungal cultures deposited by researchers from academia and from industry and accessioned approximately one thousand of them. We also provide identification services by conventional (morphology and API kit) as well molecular method, customized services and contractual research to industries. I along with my technician and project staff have been able to deposit more than 500 cultures to the NCMR-NCCS culture collection and screened them for various potential industrial applications viz., enzymes, bio active metabolites, waste degradation, etc. During the period, I have handled 4 research projects focusing on fungal diversity and their bio prospecting which in turn contributed to enrich the culture collection and preserve fungal wealth of our country.

Kranti: How has your journey been from being a PhD student to a Scientist at prestigious national institute?
Dr. Sharma: It has been a nice learning process, from working on ectomycorrhizal mushrooms during doctoral thesis to working with micro-fungi and yeasts at NCMR-NCCS. It has state of the art facilities and I can now use advanced techniques for my work. Work culture is very nice in our institute and  freedom to work and pursue my research interest in the area of diversity and taxonomy.

Kranti: What are the challenges you face during a field trip?
Dr. Sharma: During my doctoral thesis, I have went for sampling in the forests of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh for collection of ectomycorrhizal mushrooms. There are several challenges faced due to lack of communication, remoteness of the forests, etc. Moreover, we used to collect mushrooms from 8 am in the morning to 5 pm in the evening with a small packed lunch. In the evening after arriving at the forest guest house, we used to complete the mushroom data sheets and then around 7-pm we used to start culturing the mushrooms before putting them for drying. Sometimes it used to get 2-3 am in the morning because the mushrooms might decompose as the time passes after their harvest from the field.

Kranti: Which is your favorite fungus?
Dr. Sharma: The whole group of fungi are fascinating and one cannot pinpoint a single fungus. These are morphologically diverse and each one is unique in their features viz., colony color, shape, conidial shape, size, etc. The sexual and asexual stage found in these groups of organism makes them more interesting. From microscopic mycelial fungi to multi-cellular mushrooms to single celled yeasts, all have uniqueness of their own. From exogenous spores to endogenous spores, from pycnidia to cleistothecia, all have different morphological structures.

Kranti: What are the storage methods used at NCMR?
Dr. Sharma: We at NCMR-NCCS preserve the culture by five methods viz., cryopreservation at -80oC and at -196oC (liquid nitrogen) and by freeze drying. Apart from this, we also preserve the fungal cultures in distilled water and mineral oil (at 4oC). 

Kranti: What is your support system?
Dr. Sharma: My family and friends are my support system at individual level and colleagues and my team working with me at the professional level.

Kranti: What would you have liked to become if not a scientist?
Dr. Sharma: I would have been involved in doing agriculture, preferably doing scientific and organic agriculture with little bit of teaching at some academic organization so that I can interact and dissipate knowledge to students.

Kranti: What are the current and future projects in your group?
Dr. Sharma: Currently, we are working on collecting fungi from various sites and bio prospecting them for various applications like antimicrobial activity and treatment of industrial effluent. In future, we would like to focus more on the industrial applications of the fungal resource preserved in our collection and develop biotechnological usage of them.

Kranti: What are you hobbies?
Dr. Sharma: I like to read general books. Gardening is one my favorite hobbies and like to grow flowering as well as vegetable plants.

Kranti: Does research sometimes becomes stressful? What do you do for relaxation?
Dr. Sharma: Yes, research sometimes is stressful as sometimes multiple things gets lined up at the same time. To relax, I listen to classical music or go for trekking at nearby Pashan Tekri.

Kranti: What are your thoughts on Science communication in India? How can scientist contribute for better Science communication?
Dr. Sharma: I remember during my childhood I used to read a magazine ‘Science Reporter’, it used to explain scientific discoveries in simple language. Science communication in India is developing over the years by means of audio-visual and writing medium. Scientists can contribute for better science communication by conducting science talks for undergraduates explaining their research in a simplified manner. It is better now than it used to be. There are more communication channels available now with online platforms like blogs and online articles as compared to earlier days.