Fungi identify the geographic origin of dust samples.

Neal S Grantham, North Carolina State University
Brian J Reich, North Carolina State University
Krishna Pacifici, North Carolina State University
Eric B Laber, North Carolina State University
Holly L Menninger, North Carolina State University
Jessica B Henley, University of Colorado Boulder
Albert Barberán, University of Colorado Boulder
Jonathan W Leff, University of Colorado Boulder
Noah Fierer, University of Colorado Boulder
Robert R Dunn, North Carolina State University

Abstract

There is a long history of archaeologists and forensic scientists using pollen found in a dust sample to identify its geographic origin or history. Such palynological approaches have important limitations as they require time-consuming identification of pollen grains, a priori knowledge of plant species distributions, and a sufficient diversity of pollen types to permit spatial or temporal identification. We demonstrate an alternative approach based on DNA sequencing analyses of the fungal diversity found in dust samples. Using nearly 1,000 dust samples collected from across the continental U.S., our analyses identify up to 40,000 fungal taxa from these samples, many of which exhibit a high degree of geographic endemism. We develop a statistical learning algorithm via discriminant analysis that exploits this geographic endemicity in the fungal diversity to correctly identify samples to within a few hundred kilometers of their geographic origin with high probability. In addition, our statistical approach provides a measure of certainty for each prediction, in contrast with current palynology methods that are almost always based on expert opinion and devoid of statistical inference. Fungal taxa found in dust samples can therefore be used to identify the origin of that dust and, more importantly, we can quantify our degree of certainty that a sample originated in a particular place. This work opens up a new approach to forensic biology that could be used by scientists to identify the origin of dust or soil samples found on objects, clothing, or archaeological artifacts.