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Student Research Spotlight - Brianna Flonc

Posted: April 12, 2017

This is the 5th of thirteen short news articles written by students, during the professional development class, about each other's research.

Using Plants to Manipulate a Killer Fungus Murderous Manipulation: When plants and fungi collide
By, Tyler Jones

Move over mushrooms -- there’s a new fungus winning over the people’s hearts. This fungal phenom isn’t edible, but it’s packing a punch in the agricultural world nonetheless. Farmers everywhere, meet your new best friend, Metarhizium. The name may be a mouthful, but its benefits speak for themselves.

“The … fungus is found in soil and [can] infect and kill over 200 insect species. This includes disease vectors and pest insects” stated Brianna Flonc, a Master’s student under the advisement of Dr. Mary Barbercheck. “It essentially mummifies insects until there’s nothing of the insect left and the releases spores to start the process over. If we can increase the occurrence of the fungus in certain areas, such as farms, we might be able to harness the fungus’s potency and use it to kill pest insects.”

Brianna is in league with those scientists now, looking at  if the Metarhizium levels change in different types of cover crops. “Farmers already use cover crops mainly to increase nutrients in the soil for their main crops, and [the fungus] occurs naturally in the soil of a lot of different cover crops,” Brianna mentioned. “Altering soil composition with these cover crops could alter the Metarhizium presence there as well.”

She wants to know the Metarhizium levels and types in different cover crops (or combination of cover crops) and how those fungus levels interact with agricultural pests. Brianna will use this knowledge to develop a “Menu of Metarhizium,” that will inform farmers on which cover crops will produce the levels of insect killing fungus needed to combat their pests. These recommendations will include fungal levels in the soil and if a particular strain of the fungus is more potent against a certain type of pest.

While the beginnings of her tenure in this Fungal Fraternity have her looking at naturally occurring levels of the fungus, Brianna is already thinking of the future. “Metarhizium is soil dwelling, but what if we can inoculate that fungus into the actual plants?” Already, she has plans to treat corn seeds with the fungus to see if the corn plant will produce its own insect-killing fungus. If this method is successful, Brianna could develop corn plants that create their own biological control, and then move this method to cover crops that will not only increase soil nutrients, but fight against pests.

Brianna Flonc may only be at Penn State for a short amount of time, but her research will be felt by farmers for years to come. She is well on the way to customizing cover crops that pack a pest-killing one-two punch: Metarhizium on the outside and Metarhizium on the inside.