posted October 24, 2011

NSF Grant Supports Research into Relationship between Fungi and Grass

A multi-year research grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded an interdisciplinary study at Hope College of the symbiotic relationship between grass and fungus. 
 
Dr. Thomas Bultman, professor of biology and chairperson of the department, is leading the effort to understand the way that varieties of fungus help protect Canada wild rye grass from creatures that might eat the grass.  Working with samples grown at Hope, the research team will be studying the fungi's effect on seeds taken from as far south as Texas to as far north as Minnesota. 
 
Titled "Collaborative Research: RUI: Testing Mutualism Theory Using Endophytic Fungi and Their Host Grass," the project has received $355,541 in support through the NSF's "Research in Undergraduate Institutions" (RUI) program.  The award includes $280,290 running from September of this year through August 2014, and an additional $75,251 for 2014-15 contingent upon the availability of funding and project progress. 
 
Bultman is pursuing the project with Dr. Kenneth Brown, associate professor of chemistry at Hope.  Their research team will also include about 13 students across the duration of the grant, including students conducting research part-time during the school year and full-time during the summer. 
 
While human experience makes an encounter with fungus seem undesirable--something to avoid, like athlete's foot--Bultman said that the grass enjoys some benefits from the fungus it acquires.  For example, the fungi produce alkaloids, chemicals which protect the grass from herbivores. 
 
The Hope researchers will be studying the behavior of two types of alkaloid-producing fungi, to see if there are differences.  The team is focusing on Canada wild rye because, although it is found from Mexico to Canada, it is a non-agronomic plant that Bultman noted hasn't previously been examined when considering the fungi. 
 
"Even though we know a lot about these grass-fungi interactions, most of what we know is about agricultural species," he said. 
 
"Canada wild rye is not used for forage - it's a naturally occurring prairie plant," Bultman said.  "It's not really clear if all of these benefits that have been found in tall fescue, for example, are present." 
 
The Hope project is running in tandem with an NSF-funded research project at Indiana University-Kokomo led by Dr. T.J. Sullivan.  An assistant professor of molecular ecology at IU Kokomo, Sullivan will be exploring why fungus that lives in some grasses can be toxic, but not in others.  Sullivan had previously conducted research at Hope with Bultman as a post-doctoral fellow.