Two West Virginia University students’ novel research on ergot alkaloids – toxic compounds produced by fungi – and their importance to the fields of agriculture and medicine will take them to Capitol Hill to present their findings to members of Congress.
Caroline Leadmon, from Hurricane, and Jessi Tyo, a Gassaway native, are among 60 students selected nationally by the Council on Undergraduate Research to participate in Posters on the Hill April 29-30.
The highly competitive event features the most talented researchers from colleges and universities around the country and provides them with the opportunity to demonstrate the value of undergraduate research.
For the last two years, Leadmon and Tyo have been conducting research together under the guidance of Daniel Panaccione, professor of mycology in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.
“High-achieving students have so much expected of them and so many demands on their time,” Panaccione said. “In addition to their academic and extracurricular responsibilities, they have made extra investments in their research and I’m happy they are being recognized for their accomplishments.”
As part of the WVU Summer Undergraduate Research Experience, Leadmon and Tyo studied ergot alkaloids in the fungus Metarhizium brunneum.
“Ergot alkaloids impact humankind as potent pharmaceuticals and as agricultural contaminants,” Leadmon, a dual major in animal and nutritional sciences and biochemistry, explained. “They can serve as the lead compounds in medications to treat dementia, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and migraines. They also play a large part in agriculture because their presence can be harmful to grazing animals; however, they can protect grasses from insects.”
For her project, Leadmon first demonstrated that the Metarhizium species produces ergot alkaloids when it infects insects but not plants, a discovery that leads researchers to believe the species can be used as natural pesticides in crop production.
With respect to M. brunneum, she discovered it is the only fungus of the species to produce ergot alkaloids when cultured in a petri dish or flask – a property that could be important for pharmaceutical production.
“The discovery that M. brunneum produces ergot alkaloids presents the opportunity to extract and study these key chemical compounds for industrial or scientific purposes,” Leadmon said.
Tyo, a biology major in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, used a gene knockout technique to clone and characterize a new gene from M. brunneum that is the last step in making the ergot alkaloids in the species. She is the first person to successfully apply the technique to this fungus.
“This genetic modification results in the accumulation of a pharmaceutically important compound,” she explained. “It also sets the stage for more fungal genes to be analyzed. We can genetically engineer this fungus to mass produce certain chemicals that have medical applications and that otherwise are difficult to produce.”
Working together, the pair aim to better understand the biochemical pathway in which these compounds are made and, hopefully, contribute to the advancement of agricultural and pharmaceutical practices.
Participating in Posters on the Hill is not only a means to share their research, but also showcase the important work happening at WVU.
“I am excited to represent West Virginia and West Virginia University on a national level. As and R1 institution, WVU performs some of the best work in the world. It is an honor to be able to contribute to this body of work, especially as an undergraduate student,” Leadmon said.
WVU was first rated as an R1, or very high research activity, institution in 2015 by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. As of the organization’s 2018 assessment, the University continues to rank among the nation’s elite research institutions.
For Tyo, this is an opportunity to advocate for undergraduate research.
“Research has played an enormous role in my undergraduate career,” she said. “Coming into college I had no idea what research entailed and all of the important impacts it has. It allowed me to learn that I love the diagnostic side to research, an important discovery that shaped my goal of going to optometry school. I believe it can help others realize their true potential – even if it is that they don’t like research.”
This is the fourth consecutive year WVU students have been selected to participate in the event.