Research conducted by Gonzaga University biology Associate Professors Julie Beckstead and David Boose to help eradicate cheatgrass is in the news again. Visit the following link to hear the report from the National Public Radio affiliate (at Washington State University) about their work with the fungus known as “Black Fingers of Death.” The fungus that readily kills cheatgrass seeds. The research is especially important now as the Northwest prepares for the summer’s wildfires.
The Gonzaga faculty received approximately $250,000 from two grants in 2007 to study a potential biological control agent for cheatgrass, one of North America’s most invasive and damaging weeds. The grants are funding a three-year study of a fungal pathogen that kills cheatgrass seeds in the soil. Beckstead and Boose received $131,255 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Beckstead received an additional $116,256 grant from the Joint Fire Sciences Program.
Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) is a European annual grass that has spread widely throughout the American West since being introduced in the late 1800s. It currently infests an estimated 100 million acres of western lands. It quickly colonizes disturbed arid lands and, once established, creates the conditions necessary for it to flourish. Growing quickly over the winter and dying after setting seed in early summer, cheatgrass leaves a dense cover of fine, highly flammable fuel. This abundance of fuel increases the frequency of fires, prevents the re-establishment of native plant species, and makes more space for cheatgrass. The cycle continues until large areas are covered with nothing but a cheatgrass monoculture.
Gonzaga undergraduates working in Beckstead’s lab confirmed that the soil fungus Pyrenophora semeniperda readily kills cheatgrass seeds. Seeds that germinate quickly can survive the fungal attack, but slower-germinating seeds that carry over to the following year experience essentially 100 percent mortality. When it kills the seeds, the fungus produces dark, stubby projections filled with spores, leading to its nickname “black fingers of death.”
The federal grants fund collaboration among the GU researchers, four scientists at Brigham Young University (BYU) and the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, both in Provo, Utah. The three-year projects use a combination of field experiments and molecular genetics to investigate evolutionary changes in both the fungal pathogen and its cheatgrass host; whether the interaction between cheatgrass and the pathogen has had negative effects on native plants; and whether the fungus has the potential to help control cheatgrass seed banks and aid in the restoration of damaged native habitats.
“It’s exciting to be involved in a project that has the potential to help solve a problem as big and difficult as cheatgrass,” says Beckstead. “It’s also a great opportunity for students to be involved in real research on a real-world problem.”
Undergraduate involvement in faculty research is a key element of science education at Gonzaga. The biology and chemistry departments typically employ 20 to 25 students full time each summer in faculty laboratories. Beckstead earned a doctorate in plant biology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and came to Gonzaga in 2002. Also, she has served on the Grant Advisory Board and helped the Gonzaga Environmental Organization.
Gonzaga biology major Trevor Davis received full funding for his research this summer on this topic and while the $1,000 grant might be considered modest by some, it’s huge for this student-researcher. Davis, a junior, is using the grant from the Weed Science Society of America to advance research on the Black Fingers of Death.
Davis said he hopes his research will eventually aid his adviser, Beckstead, in her efforts to discover ways to control cheatgrass.
“Our lab is currently exploring the feasibility of using a fungal pathogen that infects and kills cheatgrass seeds to help control its exclusion of [the] native plants,” Davis said of Beckstead’s research. Davis said his research is crucial to determine whether Black Fingers of Death can be used as an effective cheatgrass treatment.
Beckstead earned a doctorate in plant biology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and came to Gonzaga in 2002. Also, she has served on the Grant Advisory Board and helped with the new environmental studies major and minor that debuts at Gonzaga this fall. Boose, who has taught at GU since 1998, earned his doctorate in ecology at the University of California, Davis. He is a member of Sigma Xi, the Society for the Study of Evolution, and the Ecological Society of America.