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Postdoc explores how biofuel crops harness fungal defenders

Michigan State University researcher Acer VanWallendael understands the public’s fascination with fungus. It is, after all, a fungus that kicks off the zombie apocalypse in the hit HBO series “The Last of Us.”

Acer VanWallendael
Acer VanWallendael

Thankfully, no known fungus has the power to turn people into monsters and upend society. But EEB's VanWallendael, a postdoctoral research associate in EEB core faculty member David Lawry's lab in the Department of Plant Biology the College of Natural Science, is helping highlight the very real and diverse ways microscopic fungi affect crops.

More specifically, his team’s recent paper in the journal PLOS Biology explored the complex relationships fungi have with switchgrass, a promising biofuel crop.

“One of the reasons we’re so interested in switchgrass is it’s a perennial crop,” said VanWallendael, who works with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. “Unlike an annual crop like corn, switchgrass will put down deep roots so it can come back year after year while holding soil in place and storing carbon.

“But one of the downsides is that pathogens can also build up where the grass is growing over time,” he said. “Perenniality might put the plant in conflict with disease.”

In the case of a biofuel candidate like switchgrass, fungal pathogens can both diminish the health of the plant and the quality of fuel made from it, VanWallendael said. At the same time, however, there are fungi that help the plant.

Back on the switchgrass field, thousands of species of microscopic fungi can be present, with hundreds on a single switchgrass leaf that change over time. On top of that, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center is studying several different varieties of switchgrass.

VanWallendael and his colleagues are showing which combinations result in the most robust, resilient grass as well as how plants with certain gene variants can control the fungi colonizing them. The team is looking to provide information that will help researchers grow the healthiest switchgrass for biofuel and help remediate damaging fungal infections.

They also hope their work will help remind folks that these fungi play an outsize part in shaping our world, even if it isn’t quite as dramatic as we see on TV.

“It’s easy to forget about microscopic fungi. There’s the yeast in our bread and in our beer, but we tend to ignore them in the wild,” VanWallendael said. “I hope this helps people remember that there are whole communities of fungi in a single leaf doing really interesting things that are important to the success and failure of the plant.”

The team’s work was also supported by the National Science Foundation Long-term Ecological Research Program at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station and by Michigan State University AgBioResearch.

Read the story in MSU Today.