Researchers Win $200,000 For Sustainability, Profitability and Performance Research

NEW ZEALAND - AgResearch has invested $200,000 to change how science considers fungus in plants.
calendar icon 17 December 2013
clock icon 3 minute read

The project challenged the way experts had always thought fungus grew within plants, and was the first recipient of the annual AgResearch Science Prize.

The award, which includes $200,000 project funding, is given to the best published examples of sciences that helps improve the profitability, sustainability and performance of the pastoral agricultural sector.

It was won by AgResearch honorary researcher, Mike Christensen, and senior scientist in plant fungal interactions, Christine Voisey, for the publication Epichloë endophytes grow by intercalary hyphal extension in elongating grass leaves, which featured on the front cover of the international journal Fungal Genetics and Biology.

The award was presented to the team behind the publication, Christine Voisey, Mike Christensen, Helal Ansari, Richard Johnson, Greg Bryan, John Koolaard and Wayne Simpson at a ceremony in Palmerston North.

Honorary Researcher Mike Christensen says that what he proposed what the fungus was growing at the same place where the leaf is elongating.

“What was happening was that the fungus attaches to the cells at the base of the leaf, and when those cells get bigger the fungus gets stretched. That stretching switches on all the growth processes that would normally only happen at the tip.

“Proposing this mode of growth challenged a dogma that was around 150 to 200 years old.”

AgResearch Senior Scientist Christine Voisey, says they were honoured and thrilled to be the recipients of the inaugural science awards.

“We’re going to be using the prize fund to work towards a better level of understanding of interactions between symbiotic fungi and their hosts.

“With that knowledge, we will gain the ability to find new solutions for the age old problems of pests and diseases in pasture which have dogged this country really since the beginning of formal agriculture systems here.”

AgResearch has been a pioneer of harnessing the power of endophytes as a natural control for some of New Zealand’s most devastating pasture pests.

“Endophytes are incredibly challenging to work with,” says Voisey.

“So it’s a great credit to Mike that against this background he was the first to consider the prospect that these fungi are able to colonise their host plants by an entirely new mechanism and that this mechanism is essential for symbiosis.

“The publication of the article also resulted in a science highlight in Nature Reviews Microbiology and appeared in the Editor’s Choice column of Science. We then received invitations to talk at conferences, and to start collaborations with local and internationally renowned fungal growth experts, a Marsden Award and now the AgResearch Science Prize.

“This research has been extremely successful and very exciting and the Science Prize is going to be used to fund a new PhD student who will continue the work for a further three years.”
You can see a video about the project here:

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