Everyone’s heard the phrase “snake in the grass” at one point or another, but there’s more lurking in those seemingly innocent stalks of green than a metaphorical reptile.

Ergot alkaloids are chemicals produced by fungi that live in grasses found in most lawns and pastures, and they can really do a number on livestock. They can hurt weight gain and fertility – two of the most desired outcomes in animal agriculture.

A West Virginia University researcher has been studying these ergot alkaloids and the fungi for over a decade, devising ways to minimize their negative effects without hampering their benefits to host grasses.

“Ergot alkaloids can be beneficial to plants,” said Dan Panaccione, Davis-Michael Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences. “They can help plants by discouraging feeding by insects and mammals.”

It’s that last defense mechanism that can pose a problem for livestock producers who rely on grasses as a significant component of their herds’ diet.

“These chemicals can cause poor weight gain, impair the animals’ ability to reproduce, make them more subject to heat stress, and even cause circulatory problems,” Panaccione said.

He’s studied the fungi that produce ergot alkaloids at the genetic level. Now, with the support of a $500,000 grant from the USDA, he’s taking that knowledge base to the next level.

“This grant will support our efforts to eliminate some of the genes of the fungi that live in the grasses and hopefully change the spectrum of ergot alkaloids that they create,” Panaccione said.

The goal is to produce several new types of fungi that produce different kinds of chemicals in common pasture and lawn grasses like perennial rye grass and tall fescue. Panaccione is exploring two possible paths toward that end. One is called a “gene knockout” that basically flips the off switch on the genes that create these ergot alkaloids. The other is to insert a gene that will direct the fungi to produce less perilous ergot alkaloids.

“The fungi that grow in these grasses are very difficult to manipulate genetically,” Panaccione said. “It’s a vastly complicated process.”

In addition to the USDA grant, Panaccione has some valuable student support in his efforts.

Katy Ryan is pursuing a PhD in genetics and developmental biology and has been working with Panaccione for two years.

“My research involves studying the unsolved steps in the ergot alkaloid pathway – studying uncharacterized genes, new intermediates, enzyme function and so on,” Ryan said.

Developing a better understanding of which genes are involved at which steps in the pathway of ergot alkaloid creation and what intermediates are being produced has some intriguing potential applications.

“This research could then benefit others who want to manipulate the early steps in the pathway for uses such as synthesizing new compounds for medical purposes,” Ryan said.

Some medical uses of ergot alkaloids include inducing labor and treating migraine headaches.

Sarah Robinson, a biology and psychology major in WVU’s Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, took part in WVU’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience in 2010 and started working with Panaccione shortly after that.

“Dr. Panaccione has given me my own project to work on,” said the Independence, W.Va. native. “This allows me to become more independent in the lab, but I still have a lot of one-on-one time with my professor and this helps me improve my molecular techniques.”

Christopher Powell, an applied and environmental microbiology major from Mannington, W.Va., is honing a number of basic skills that researchers need through his work in Panaccione’s lab.

“My job basically entails maintaining the laboratory,” Powell said. “I make the various types of media and solutions used in experiments. Also, I make sure that the laboratory equipment and the lab itself is clean and sterile so it can be used during experiments. Finally, I help with DNA extractions, culture transformations, pouring plates, growing fungus, and other tasks.”



CONTACT: David Welsh, Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design
304.293.2394; dwelsh@wvu.edu

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