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Humans at Bolt – Dr. Kevin McCluskey, Fungal Geneticist & Lead Principal Scientist

Dr. Kevin McCluskey is a fungal geneticist leading the Grow team and guiding the process development for Mylo™ material. As part of his job, Kevin sets direction for the team and makes sure they are in tune with the latest developments across different scientific fields and can translate them to Bolt’s own work.

“You can consider the genome as an instruction set. We are trying to figure out how it’s used to make an organism. And fungi are profoundly diverse. The kingdom of fungi is comparable to plants and animals.”

Before coming to Bolt, Kevin was a curator at the Fungal Genetics Stock Center (FGSC). Established in 1960, the FGSC is the main open repository for genetically characterized fungi. 

“I was the curator of that collection for 23 years. A neat thing about being a curator is that I got to pay attention to scientific progress in many different fields related to fungi, like fungal geneticists working on the Neurospora and studying fungal circadian rhythms, to industrial biotechnology, to plant-microbe interactions, to phylogenetics – understanding how organisms are related, to ecology – understanding where they are in time and space, to mycology – the study of where fungi, what they’re called, how they’re related to one another, and where they occur.”

Have you seen the field change over the years?

“Yes! Research fields tend to wax and wane, they grow and shrink depending on the available knowledge and the tools that you have access to. Fungi, especially the ones I worked with, were at the cutting edge of all bioresearch in the 1920’s through the 1940’s. Neurospora was foundational to the understanding of how all living organisms work. The research won the Nobel prize in 1958 and is recognized as the central paradigm of molecular genetics upon which we layered more knowledge in the subsequent years. With every new technology that emerged for working with fungi, we saw scientists focus on organisms that could give new information, or that behaved well in the lab. Now, we’re well into the genomics era, which opened the door to working on many different types of fungi. ” 

 What is the most surprising or interesting thing about researching fungi?

“Historically fungi were studied with plants because they also grow in one place, they don’t get up and walk around and they look similar to some plants. But actually, fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants.

This has an interesting implication when trying to treat fungal infections in humans. A lot of the things that you might want to target for are genes or enzymes that are shared with humans. In order to successfully target a fungus, you must find targets that are different, and there are very few differences. Most antifungal drugs are based on the fact that, unlike humans, fungi don’t use cholesterol in their cell membranes. But most humans are innately resistant to fungi. There’s a suggestion that humans inhale in the order of 1 billion spores per day, but they’re not human pathogens. Most of them can’t grow at body temperature, so there’s only a few that can harm humans.” 

 What drew you to Bolt?

“I grew up in the Bay Area in the 60’s and 70’s and we were all very eco-Granola. The emphasis on sustainability is important to me making a product that doesn’t damage the environment. I was also very attracted to the fact that Bolt makes a tangible product, and not just generates IP like many other biotech companies.

One of the most exciting moments working at Bolt was seeing a sheet of finished Mylo™ material for the first time and comparing it to an unfinished sheet of mycelium that we grew. We all looked at each other, like “This is going to change the world!” That was just the most rewarding thing. But, of course, my profession also contains a lot of other rewards, like helping someone learn, or seeing their project come to fruition.”

Are there any good places to forage in the Bay Area?

“That’s an interesting subject. I personally don’t care to eat mushrooms, and I never have. This goes back to when I was a little boy. As much as I like blue cheese, I never liked going out and picking mushrooms and bringing them home. I like to look at them and I leave them for other people to enjoy.”

To learn more about the Grow team stay tuned for our next update! 

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