A scientist at the University of Abertay, Dundee has achieved a world first in the fight against dry rot by successfully growing wild dry rot fungus in captivity.
Nia White, of the Scottish Institute for Wood Technology, has isolated fungal spores from samples gathered in the Himalayas on a field trip during which she contended with landslides, dysentery and bears.
The spores have germinated and the fungus is now growing in culture, giving Dr White and her team enough material for a series of tests including genetic analysis and DNA finge-rprinting.
Dr White, who presented her findings at an international conference of wood scientists in Dublin last week, said that the next stage involves comparison with samples of dry rot fungus taken from buildings in northern Europe, Australia and Japan. Around 10 per cent of British homes are affected by dry rot, which causes an estimated Pounds 400 million of damage a year.
"We are looking at how the fungus has adapted to life in buildings, and whether resistance has been built up to current treatment regimes," Dr White said.
"The relationship between the wild Himalayan fungus and the 'domestic' British variety is a crucial question. For example, the two varieties are very closely related, yet our own fungus apparently cannot survive in the wild, and we don't yet know why."
The team is comparing the reactions of the two varieties to a range of environmental factors such as temperature, air flow, and humidity. They are particularly interested in whether the domestic variety has evolved from the wild and adapted itself to life in our buildings, becoming more resilient.
"Scientists have been studying the dry rot organism for a long time, but never in direct comparison with wild samples," Dr White said.
"Our research will allow us to study how the fungus's sensitivity to environmental factors has changed over time. We hope this work might also provide clues to the origin of the dry rot fungus in Europe. Has it evolved from a native wild species which no longer exists here, or did it arrive in timber imported from India in the 19th century as some researchers think?" Dr White is seeking sponsorship for a further trip to the Himalayas to collect more samples for the next stage of the work, which will involve testing the effectiveness of natural predators on the dry rot organism.
One fungal species is showing promise as an environmentally friendly method of control.