Grad student wins top student award for groundbreaking fungus research

Graduate student Scott Behie with his fungus. Behie won a prestigious student award from the Society of Invertebrate Pathology last month.

Graduate student Scott Behie with his fungus. Behie won a prestigious student award from the Society of Invertebrate Pathology last month.

PhD student Scott Behie has had one heck of a year. Last June, his research was published in Science, one of the world’s top scientific publications. This August, he achieved what no Canadian student has done: snagged a top-notch, international student award from the Society of Invertebrate Pathology.

“It’s nice to know that other people in similar fields are saying, you know what, this is really neat. This isn’t just at Brock where we find this research interesting,” Behie says of winning the Mauro E. Martignoni Student Award.

“There’s lots of people in the field who are taking note of what Brock’s doing and that’s very encouraging.”

Behie and colleagues’ research focuses on the properties of Metarhizium, a widespread soil-borne fungus that feasts upon more than 200 different kinds of insects.

Metarhizium has long been known to be an insect pathogen, destroying soil-borne pests by robbing them of nitrogen. Metarhizium is currently used as a bio-control agent in agriculture around the world.

But this research is the first of its kind to show that the Metarhizium fungus is also able to transfer nitrogen from the insects that they kill to plants via their root systems because it’s a plant endophyte. That means the fungus lives inside the plant without causing any harm to its host.

And that may have tremendous implications for nitrogen-poor soils, especially in developing countries.

“Applications of this fungus could limit the need for things like nitrogen-rich fertilizers and other inputs that are quite expensive,” says Behie.

“Also, this fungus is used already as a bio-control agent, because it is a potent insect pathogen. People have been developing this and actually already applying it to agricultural fields to kill pests. So now applications of this can be tailored a bit.”

Behie’s supervisor is microbiology professor and vice-chair of the Department of Biological Sciences Michael Bidochka. Bidochka and Behie attended the 46th annual Meeting of the Society of Invertebrate Pathology in Pittsburgh Aug. 11-15.

“I knew that Scott applied for a travel grant but to see his name projected on a huge screen at the opening ceremonies of the conference was a pleasant surprise,” Bidochka recalls. “I was proud of his accomplishment.”

Bidochka says their research is significant in uncovering another branch of the nitrogen cycle.

“This research was picked up internationally in popular science magazines, such as Natural History and National Geographic,” says Bidochka. “It has resulted in several invited talks to other international meetings. I think it is another contribution to the great research that is being done, primarily by graduate students like Scott, at Brock.”

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