Life Science

UWF Graduate in China to Study Fungi that Stimulate Plant Growth

Pensacola – A recent graduate of the University of West Florida will conduct research at a prestigious agricultural university in China for three months alongside plant physiologists and biochemists.

Danielle Tavano, who graduated this month with a bachelor’s degree in biology, will be at the Hunan Agricultural University in Changsha, the capital of the Hunan province, to study fungi that produce plant growth hormones.

“I’m researching fungi that grow in the root zones of rice plants, and we did some tests and found that some of them are producing a plant growth hormone,” Tavano said. “So it stimulates cell growth and division in plants directly.”

The “big picture” of the research is that it could help increase crop yields, Tavano said.

Dr. Joe Lepo, a professor of microbiology who conducts research within the Center of Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation at UWF, will accompany Tavano on the research trip. The CEDB and the University’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs are funding the trip. The College of Resources and Environment at Hunan Agricultural University will provide room and board for Tavano, and Professor Zhenhua Zhang’s laboratory will provide the materials and laboratory facilities for her research in China.

“I think it’s going to be amazing for me, both as a learning experience, and for my career in the future,” Tavano said. “It will make me competitive for (graduate) school. That’s my next step; I want to go to grad school.”

The plant-growth hormone that Tavano and Lepo will research is commonly called auxin.

“We know that bacteria produce that hormone, but (Tavano) found some fungi that are specific to different rice cultivars,” Lepo said. “So what that means is there is a symbiotic relationship between the fungus and the rice plant, and it’s like they know each other, they talk to each other and they help each other out.”

Tavano’s research will in part serve to collect data for two separate National Science Foundation grant proposals, Lepo said.

UWF researchers have studied the fungal isolates with affinity to popular U.S. rice cultivars provided by Texas A&M University. However, since rice cultivars differ throughout the world, Lepo said the NSF would want to know if cultivar-specific fungi isolated in China also produce auxin. Moreover, Tavano will be working with plant physiologists in China who can identify specific molecular targets in the rice plant that are affected by the symbiotic fungi.

“It provides seed data to support our NSF proposals, while we’re working with the Chinese rice cultivars and, hopefully, we’re getting results similar to what we think we have in the U.S,” Lepo said of the research. “But the other thing it does is it shows NSF that we have a strong collaborative relationship with that university.”

While this will be Tavano’s first trip to China, Lepo has visited Chinese universities and scientific institutes over 20 times during the past 10 years for scientific collaboration.

“My Chinese colleagues at Hunan Agricultural University are plant physiologists,” Lepo said. “They study the different bottlenecks of rice growth, and what we want to see is whether the fungi that produce auxins are going to trigger and loosen up some of these bottlenecks inside of the plant.”

Tavano wants to become a mycologist to further her study of fungi. She said she has been fascinated with fungi since she started foraging for wild mushrooms years ago.

Tavano said she had never traveled farther than Canada before her trip to China and was looking forward to immersing herself in the culture.

“I want to learn as much as I can, learn as much Chinese as I can – just get the whole experience,” she said.