Omoanghe Isikhuemhen, 51, mushroom microbiologist and biotechnologist
From the time he was six or seven years old, Omoanghe Isikhuemhen would join his cousins and siblings to forage for wild mushrooms including Pleurotus tuber-regium – also called king tuber mushrooms — in the tropical rainforest in Esan Kingdom of Nigeria.
In a way, Omon has been hunting for mushrooms ever since.
His N.C. A&T lab has the largest bank of shitake mushroom cultures in North and South America, and he’s busily working to on ways to cultivate prized truffle and develop new medical uses for all kinds of mushrooms.
Omon came from a family of subsistence farmers in rural Nigeria. His father was a forestry officer who encouraged his children to go to college.
“It’s the only passport out of the ghetto,” Omon said.
He went to the University of Benin to study botany. The precocious young man impressed a professor, Dr. John Okhuoya, by developing a homemade growing medium from water left after boiling African yams. The professor later became his mentor at the University of Benin. The professor wrote an undergraduate thesis project for him to test the medium, and another project to develop mycelium – the part the fungus that sprouts mushrooms – for propagation.
The professor’s other thesis student got there first and chose the media from yam and other local grains project.
“That’s how I ended up with mushrooms. It was destiny. It was divine — that is how I see it,” Omon said.
After undergraduate graduation and a few years of mandatory national service, he was running a motorbike taxi service and helping raise his younger siblings. But he was encouraged to come back to the university by his professor.
He wanted to study post-harvest rot disease of pineapples, because he was growing them at the time. Sadly, the university library was lacking books and journals that could help him in pineapple research. Instead he went back to Pleurotus tuber-regium and figuring out how to propagate it.
At the time, he had started raising chickens. The poultry business was going strong, but his friends and mentors in academia lured him back with a job at the university. His academic career had officially begun.
He got a fellowship to do more mushroom research in Germany, followed by earning his PhD from the Institute of Microbiology Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic in Prague. In his studies, he came across Duke University Professor, Dr. Rytas Vilgalys.
Dr. Vilgalys was studying the same mushroom, and had some samples he collected from Northern Australia and Papua New Guinea that he offered up to Omon to study in his lab at Duke University.
He did post-doc work in Japan after is PhD program. While in Japan, he also worked with shitake mushroom houses across Kyushu Island, working with scientists that were studying diseases and pests that affected production.
At Vilgalys recommendation, Omon took an assistant professor job at ECU in 2000.
He was working on using recombinant DNA technology to screen the mushroom genome for medicinal properties. When he ran out of mushrooms to study, he went to the local Harris Teeter to get more. He was appalled at what he found.
“They were ugly. I called the produce manager and I said, ‘Do you really sell this mushroom?’” Omon said.
The next day, he was driving around with his family near a farm that had bailed some cotton. He took some samples from the ground where the bails had been stored and grew his own supply of oyster mushrooms. They were beautiful.
“My boss walked in and said, ‘You know how to do this?’ He said, ‘Boy, I am wasting your time,’” Omon said.
The Professor at ECU, Dr. E. J. Stellwag, connected him with the Golden Leaf Foundation and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, who eventually funded him to teach farmers in North Carolina to grow mushrooms as a replacement crop for tobacco. In the meantime, N.C. A&T caught wind of Omon’s work and invited him to join the faculty in 2002.
“The major work was on shitakes. Shitakes were the exotic mushroom. Its interest was rising. It has food value and also it has medicinal properties,” Omon said.
Omon had up to 200 North Carolina farms from the mountains to the coast growing shitakes. He knew exactly what types would go best in what areas of North Carolina.
He had a master’s degree student, Dietrich Blum, working on breeding shitake. They generated over 600 new strains of shitakes plus the over 100 already in his culture bank – which is how N.C. A&T got to become holder of the largest culture bank of shitake strains on this side of the world.
“We preserve them. We do research on them,” Omon said.
He’s also been working with local farmers to test how to get one of the world’s most prized mushroom – truffles – to grow in North Carolina. They are typically foraged, not cultivated by farmers. But scientists around the world have been working to farm them.
There are some growing at the A&T farm right now, under pecan and pine trees, and research projects going on at the campus nursery. Omon’s projects have managed to cultivate them in a few years – not 4-6 years like other farms in other parts of the world. Through his work and a local Biotech company Mycorrhiza Biotech LLC, the first commercial truffle farmer (Burwell Farms) has emerged in North Carolina. Now you can buy grown in North Carolina truffles from Burwell Farms.
The North Carolina Department of Agricultures & Consumer Services, North Carolina Biotechnology Center and USDA-NIFA has funded Omon’s truffle project for the past 14 years.
The edible properties of mushrooms might be what people love best about them – including Omon who loves to cook. But their medicinal capabilities are ripe for research. Omon has worked with poultry at NC A&T and swine at Purdue University to use mushrooms to reduce the need for antibiotics in raising farm animals.
He says his next yet-to-be-published work will explore totally replacing antibiotics when weening piglets.