Using fungi as biocontrol agents against specific plant pathogens

Through the bioactive molecules they produce, fungi hold great potential in solving problems across the spectrum, from agriculture to health.  To break down the complexity of their metabolic pathways, Dr. Elizabeth Skellam is developing methods to synthesize these molecules with hopes of protecting crops from pathogens. View Halo Profile >>

Tell us about your research

Fungi are prolific producers of bioactive molecules that have potential uses as essential medicines, life-enhancing drugs or agrochemicals. These small molecules are not always observed in a laboratory setting, as they are under tight regulatory control and may require specific environmental cues. My research aims to overcome these unknown controls, using transcriptional regulator manipulation or heterologous expression techniques, so that we can identify the full range of bioactive molecules that a single strain of fungus can produce. This knowledge is fundamental when considering the use of fungi as biocontrol agents against specific plant pathogens, as we need to be certain that no toxic molecules are produced that cause more damage than the pathogen itself.  

My research aims to overcome these unknown controls, using transcriptional regulator manipulation or heterologous expression techniques, so that we can identify the full range of bioactive molecules that a single strain of fungus can produce.

Can you explain that to a non-scientist?

Many important crops such as rice, wheat and corn face substantial contamination by fungal pathogens, leading to enormous losses of food stuffs affecting farmers and consumers alike. Methods for preventing crop loss include using genetically modified crops or pesticides, with neither being fully accepted by consumers due to safety concerns. An alternative approach is to use a biocontrol agent that protects crops from pathogens without causing damage to the crops, the environment or the consumer. However, it is difficult to know how a biocontrol agent will behave under different environmental conditions or if it produces toxins of its own. We intend to characterize all of the small molecules produced by a potential biocontrol agent by using metabolic engineering techniques to bypass specific environmental conditions. 

We intend to characterize all of the small molecules produced by a potential biocontrol agent by using metabolic engineering techniques to bypass specific environmental conditions. 

Why did you choose this area of research?

The vast majority of metabolic pathways responsible for the biosynthesis of bioactive molecules in fungi are highly complex and not well understood. Furthermore, there is huge diversity in the types of molecules synthesized by fungi, as individual strains can be considered unique in terms of their chemodiversity. It is estimated that only 10 percent of bioactive molecules have been correlated with metabolic pathways, so there are still plenty of novel biosynthetic pathways to be discovered. Due to the impact of fungal bioactive molecules on human health, understanding how and why these molecules are synthesized is important when considering domesticating fungus for specific uses either in agriculture or even food production. 

How could your Grants4Ag project someday impact #healthforall #hungerfornone?

This project aims to understand the full secondary metabolite potential of Sarocladium zeae, a fungus that may protect corn from pathogenic fungi such as Aspergillus flavus and Fusarium verticillioides. If S. zeae produces no toxic compounds of its own, this fungus has the potential to be used as a biocontrol agent to prevent infection of corn by mycotoxin producing fungi, therefore saving significant quantities of corn from contamination and destruction. The hope is that the methodology developed in this study will be applicable to investigate and assess other fungal biocontrol agents that have the potential to protect additional crops from dangerous pathogens.

The hope is that the methodology developed in this study will be applicable to investigate and assess other fungal biocontrol agents that have the potential to protect additional crops from dangerous pathogens.