Dr Sarah Watkinson

Research Interests

Cellular and physiological mechanisms of lignocellulose depolymerisation by basidiomycete fungi. Soil fungi and ecosystem function.

Genomic methods provide a new way of investigating the cellular machinery of basidiomycete wood decay fungi. I am currently collaborating with Drs K Burton and D. Eastwood at Warwick University, and the international team annotating the whole genome sequence of Serpula lacrymans, which was completed at the US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute in July 2009. Genes of particular interest are those associated with brown rot decay of wood.  We are also interested in using the genome to explore the nutrient sensing and signalling implicit in the highly coordinated metabolism and development of mycelial networks of wood decaying basidiomycetes.

The contribution of such mycelial networks to essential ecosystem processes is widely underestimated. Fungal networks concentrate and spatially reallocate plant nutrients and thereby play a key role in plant growth and the terrestrial carbon cycle. Dr Mark Fricker's invention of Photon Counting Scintillation Imaging has demonstrated the rapidity and sensitivity with which fungal networks can move amino acids. Using this, Dr M Tlalka and I showed that mycelium of Serpula lacrymans 'notices' the appearance of fresh pieces of wood, and quickly rushes its nitrogen reserves to the spot.

The use of a non-toxic nonmetabolised amino acid to interfere with amino acid transport through mycelium is an effective means of arresting the spread of dry rot through buildings. Affected uninhabited buildings suitable for field trials are sought - see consulting website for contact details.

With Drs Nick Brown and David Bass (British Museum, Natural History) I investigate the biodiversity of fungi in soils of different ecosystem types. Lab microcosms are used to explore the effect of realistic levels of soil nitrogen on mycelial network function and development.

As Emeritus Research Fellow I am building on my research on the cellular and physiological mechanisms of lignocellulose depolymerisation by basidiomycete fungi and the role of soil fungi in the function of woodland ecosystem, to engage wider audiences in the science underpinning current concerns about ecosystem resilience to climate change. I organised a five-year Science Poetry project at St Hilda’s College from 2016 and subsequently served as PI for the SciPo network at the Oxford Centre for the Humanities running open conferences on the creative common ground between science and poetry. In 2019 I was elected inaugural Writer in Residence at Wytham Woods, and continue to collaborate with research staff there to showcase work related to nature-based solutions for climate change mitigation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4GdbKdVbLQ


Poetry publications:

Dung Beetles Navigate by Starlight. Cinnamon Press, 2017.

The Woods of Hazel, 2020.

Photovoltaics (poetry) Graft Press, Bradford, UK. November 2021