I am the director of the University of Oklahoma's Natural Products Discovery Group and the Citizen Science Soil Collection Program. Our researchers have teamed up with the public in a drug discovery partnership. We use the fungi obtained from soil samples collected by volunteer citizen scientists to find new natural products that halt cancer cell growth, stop the spread of infectious pathogens, and kill life-threatening parasites. The data we uncover is made available to the public and for further research purposes. Following a viral Reddit post in 2015, the Citizen Science Soil Collection Program has been featured in various publications including Science Friday, Scientific American, Discover Magazine, and more. Joining me is Aidan, who made the 2015 reddit post. He also participated with me in the April 6th, 2018 episode of NPR's Official Reddit Podcast "Endless Thread", which featured our program.

Comments: 59 • Responses: 24  • Date: 

endless_thread15 karma

HUGE props to this lab and the work they're doing. Also to Aidan, who brought the Citizen Science Soil Collection Program to our attention!

The_Joy_of_Fungi9 karma

Thank you Ben and Amory. It was fun sharing the Program's story with you.

caseyoc7 karma

Do you have any suggestions as to how to get my 12 year old interested in helping collect the sample? I'd like to collect our sample from my vegetable garden--we don't use any fertilizer or weed/critter-repelling chemicals other than marigolds on it. Would that be an okay location?

The_Joy_of_Fungi6 karma

Your garden will work just fine for this. We would be grateful for your participation.

I think getting a 12 year old interested in anything a parent believes is good for the child can be tricky!

With that said, some of the work we do in our lab is focused on finding cures for different types of pediatric cancers. We use the fungi from the program to look for new drug leads. Perhaps your child might want to help knowing that his efforts can benefit other kids his/her age. Also, we are always happy to get pictures form our participants. There are lots of them on our program website. If you both would like to have his/her picture on the website collecting the sample, be sure to email it to us and we will try to get it posted.

TranquilSeaOtter6 karma

Couple of questions:

  • 1 Would you accept soil samples from a park or do you prefer soil samples from a private residence? In NY so I would be more than happy to get soil samples from Central Park or Prospect Park.

  • 2 How does the microbial ecology vary across seasons? This is a question I've been thinking about and I'm curious to find out what the microbial makeup of a soil sample is as the seasons change.

  • 3 How often do you come across new and novel species of microbes? My assumption is you would find a new microbe almost every time but I could be really off base.

The_Joy_of_Fungi9 karma

Great questions.

Question 1: We prefer to not receive samples from parks. We really need to have land owner's consent to share the sample with us. Additionally, many parks and municipalities have their own rules and restrictions about what can be done within parks such as not removing anything (plants, rocks, soil, etc.) from the premises. We want to make sure no one if getting themselves in trouble and that samples are collected legally. With that said, we have many people who live in apartments and cities who do participate successfully by receiving permission from their landlords. We only need a few ounces of soil and most people do not mind once they know this. Even a narrow crevice along a building's edge can provide new fungi. We would like to get more urban samples if people can help.

Question 2: Surprisingly, there are few studies out looking at temporal variation in fungal communities over time. Our own experience tells us that fungi can vary greatly in a single place overtime. Perhaps there are changes in seasonal abundance (e.g., leaves drop in fall, providing lots of fresh nutrients for cellulose degraders to eat). We do encourage people to resample their property.

Question 3: It is estimated that there might be 1.5-5 million species of fungi on Earth. With only about 10% of those species described, there is lots of opportunity for new organism to be found. Finding new fungi is very common, but still very exciting and fun. It is hard to believe that their is so much life living under our feet and in our yards that is not yet known to exist.

DonSechler6 karma

Interesting program, where would be the best place to collect samples? I'm in the piedmont area of NC, but often travel to the Appalachians, do the best samples come from creek beds, near stagnant water, the deep woods, or open fields?

The_Joy_of_Fungi8 karma

Every sample has potential. However, there are few things you can do to improve your odds of getting good fungi.

1) Almost all soil samples we receive contain fungi. However, we have observed that extremely sandy soils (e.g., beach sand) tend to contain lower numbers of fungi. Freshly composted flower beds are also surprisingly low in terms of the different types of fungi we see. We believe that the influx of nutrients favors a few fast growing fungi to take off and swamp out the other species that are normally present. The highest numbers of unique fungi tend to come from the upper few inches of soil from relatively undisturbed areas (like under a shed, behind a bush, next to a fence, etc.). If you spend a few moments looking, you will probably spot a few good areas in your yard.

2) Try not to collect excessively wet samples (like sediments or mud). There are lots of microbes (bacteria and yeast) that will continue to grow in a sealed bag without oxygen and they will kill off the other fungi. Also, shipping wet samples in mail is just asking for trouble. Dry soils are best to ship.

3) If you have access to woods and fields, that is great. They tend to have lots of variety in them.

4) Finally, make sure you have permission or own the land you sample.

iwouldrun500miles5 karma

What would happen if I sent you a sample, and it contained some bad-ass fungi that were super helpful and y'all wanted some more of my dirt?

The_Joy_of_Fungi9 karma

No worries...once we have the fungus growing in the laboratory, we can grow more of it. We never need to return to a person's lawn. We grow the fungi in our lab on Cheerios breakfast cereal (fungi love it). We also put samples into freezer storage (-80 C), which preserves them for future use. If we ever need to make more of a fungus, we just get the sample from the freezer and grow more in the lab.

KaneHau4 karma

I'm in Hawaii where we have restrictions on sending soil, plants, etc, off island.

How do you handle collecting samples from such places?

The_Joy_of_Fungi9 karma

Our team has worked with the USDA to obtain the required permits to move and receive soil samples (PPQ 526 Permit to Move Live Plant Pests, Biological Control Agents, Bees, Parasitic Plants, Federal Noxious Weeds, or Soil). The collection kit is compliant with the permit/USDA regulations. We also provide quarterly reports to every state and federal USDA offices letting each agency know which fungi and potential pathogens are being identified in their jurisdictions. The information sent to the offices contains just the fungus identification and the zip code from which it originated. No participant names, addresses, or personal identifying information are included in the reports.

KaneHau3 karma


The_Joy_of_Fungi6 karma

It is also important to note that we only operate within the United States excluding territories. The process for getting soil samples, even from US territories, is challenging. We currently cannot accept soil samples from outside of the US. Additional rules for collecting samples can be found on the Citizen Science Soil Collection website noted in the introduction. Fortunately, the US contains an extremely large variety of habitats that harbor all sorts of great fungi.

Eivaro2 karma

Hi! Can You tell me where are You from?

The_Joy_of_Fungi5 karma

Our team is based out of the University of Oklahoma.

Eivaro-8 karma

Yeah but your name is Robert Cichewicz. Does it mean that you from Poland?

The_Joy_of_Fungi9 karma

America is quite the melting-pot of humanity.

Trusty_Craftsman2 karma

Good afternoon Dr Cichewicz. Are you familiar with the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON)? I was involved in setting up some of the observatory and we received a separate grant to do some soil cores that were sent off for analysis. If you would like to PM me I can give you some contact info perhaps those would be useful?

The_Joy_of_Fungi2 karma

Yes, I am familiar with NEON. There are several people at the University of Oklahoma who participate in the program.

CanadianMapleSyrup2 karma

Hello there,

I am from southwestern Ontario, Canada. Would you like some Canadian samples?

The_Joy_of_Fungi3 karma

Sorry, we cannot accept soil samples from outside of the United States. This is due to concerns about the potential transfer of pathogens, as well as because of international biodiversity treaties. Laws protect each nation's national resources including biological resources (this includes the microbes living in a nation's soil). We would need to secure permits and signed agreements to ship soils for the work that we do into the US.

Columba2 karma

Are you aware of any of similar initiatives internationally?

The_Joy_of_Fungi6 karma

I have been contacted by a few people in Europe and Central/South America, about starting programs but I have not seen any of them in action yet. As of now, we appear to be the only program of its kind focusing on fungi from all over the US.

CanadianMapleSyrup1 karma

That is entirely understandable. :)

Perhaps one day. We have some pretty great soil up here. :p

The_Joy_of_Fungi2 karma

You certainly have great soils in Canada. You just need a group who can work on getting a program set up.

coryrenton1 karma

From what you've seen so far, which parts of the country have the worst soil in terms of possible threats to human health?

The_Joy_of_Fungi6 karma

Sorry, our program is not well suited for answering that question. We are focused on how the fungi can be used for drug discovery.

However, if you are asking just about fungi and the dangers they present from soils, there is one particular story you might be interested in hearing. These is a fungal disease called valley fever. It is caused by Coccidioides sp. It is typically seen in the desert southwest; however, I have seen a report from central Washington state. The CDC has a great synopsis page about it.

N1_Source1 karma

I can't seem to open your website, is it down?

The_Joy_of_Fungi2 karma

I just checked. It seems to be working. Can you try it again? Or you can try typing whatsinyourbackyard.org into your browser.

The_Joy_of_Fungi3 karma

While we are interested in most every soil you can find, soils that are known to contain dangerous amounts of known toxic substances should not be sent. That would be dangerous for our lab crew and the people who handle the mail.

deviousD1 karma

Can we put soil from multiple spots of our yard in one kit? I also wanted to share my story below. I think this is a great project - I will be ordering a kit for my daughter (9) since she loves science.

After heavy rains water tends to leak into my basement. After a few days we get these funky fungi (maybe in the Pezizaceae family based on my google search) that look kinda like a wheat lasagna noodle with no real stems and there is a very earthy smell for a while.

The_Joy_of_Fungi1 karma

I suppose you could combine them or if you have a couple of distinctive spots to sample, we could send you two kits. Just add a note when you make the kit request.

I am sorry to hear about the problems with your water damage and mold problem. I hope you have been able to work with a trained specialist to stop the leak and get the mold removed. Living in a house with mold can be problematic for your family's health if it is left unchecked.

Liskarialeman1 karma

This is a really awesome idea! Going to bookmark the website and sign up to send some soil over. What's been in the most unique sample you've found so far? Is it possible we can be contacted to let us what's in the soil that we send once you process it...? I'm so curious! (I know it'd be a very hard thing to do for everyone... I'd just really love to know!)

The_Joy_of_Fungi2 karma

Glad to have you join the program. We have a few promising compounds that have emerged. One is a wonderful compound that inhibits a type of pediatric cancer (Ewing sarcoma). We have compounds that are being evaluated against cancer, infectious bacteria and fungi, parasites, and other disease targets. We have tried to make a point of contacting people whose samples have yielded truly remarkable compounds or when something from their sample is published. We do put data onto a publicly accessible database (SHAREOK) so that people can see pictures of their fungi and their identifies. The link can be found in the Citizen Science Soil Collection Program website. You can look through the data now and see the thousands of fungi our team has obtained.

Liskarialeman1 karma

This is amazing. Thank you for sharing/responding/doing this! It's so cool to see a sample from a few towns over!

The_Joy_of_Fungi1 karma

No problem. I hope we can add a star on the map for you very soon!

Liskarialeman1 karma

It's pretty neat to look at all the sample photos with the fungi growing and learn about the fungi too (as a photographer, I might just be a little bit biased there though)! Does the program work with any elementary or high schools to do this type of thing in their area, too, and watch the fungi grow so they can learn as well?

The_Joy_of_Fungi2 karma

Thank you. Our team has worked to make sure that we can use the pictures as effective tool for communicating results. A person can spend a lot of time searching through photos and keep finding new and wonderful pictures.

We have been working with several schools throughout the US; some of them are now moving into repeat years with the same teachers. Our team should have a curriculum guide coming out this fall for teachers to use in the classroom.

There are so many possibilities for bring these amazing organisms into the classroom. They have a lot to teach all of us.

Bioleague1 karma

How would i go about sending you some samples? I live in Finland, the land of forests and lakes, theres quite a few different types of soil here.

The_Joy_of_Fungi2 karma

Sorry, we cannot accept samples from outside of the US at this time. We do not have an agreement with the government of Finland to explore your country's biodiversity for drug-like compounds.

Bioleague1 karma

Well thats a shame, if this ever changes then let me know !

The_Joy_of_Fungi1 karma

I will. In the meantime, it might be worth noting there are some great fungal natural products researchers working in Denmark. Depending on how agreements are structured between you and your nearby nations, it might be worth contacting them to see if they can accept a sample from you.

greffedufois1 karma

Want some Bristol Bay, AK dirt?

The_Joy_of_Fungi2 karma

Yes, please. That would be wonderful.

Thank you for helping out. Be sure to fill out the kit request form and we will get a kit sent out to you right away.

Iskald_0 karma

Do you have family in Philadelphia? I know a beautiful girl with your last name in the city, in her 20s, I wonder if you are related.

The_Joy_of_Fungi1 karma

There seem to be a few pockets of people sharing this same last name.