AgResearch fungus team wins $200,000 prize for dogma-challenging project

AgResearch has invested $200,000 to help further a project which challenged the way experts had thought fungus grew within plants.

The project was the first recipient of the annual AgResearch Science Prize, awarded to the best published examples of sciences that helps improve the profitability, sustainability and performance of the pastoral agricultural sector. It includes $200,000 project funding.

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.

Christensen says the mode of fungus growth proposed in the paper challenged a dogma that was around 150 to 200 years old.

AgResearch Senior Scientist Christine Voisey said the team will use 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.”

A video about the project can be viewed here


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