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KPU study receives funding to unlock the power of fungi

KPU study receives funding to unlock the power of fungi

Thu, Apr 25, 2019
Dr. Deborah Henderson inspects a petri dish with fungi or trichoderma.

Tucked away in a lab at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Langley campus is a dark room with fungi. To someone without expertise or experience in the field, it looks like a shelf of mold in glass jars. But to the researchers working at the Institute for Sustainable Horticulture (ISH), this fungi may open the door to a number of horticultural innovations, such as a natural replacement for chemical pesticides.

 

In fact, many agriculture innovation startups and businesses come to the ISH looking for help with their products.

 

“These companies are the green economy. They are making things that are important to our environment and sustainability,” says Deborah Henderson, director of the Institute for Sustainable Horticulture.

 

Recently, to help commercialize a new Trichoderma-based biopesticide product, the ISH received $193,260 from the Canadian Agricultural Partnership.

 

Trichoderma are fungi naturally found in the soil all around us. The right strain of Trichoderma can help protect crops and other plants from other fungi or diseases without the use of chemical pesticides, which are harmful to the environment.

 

The team at ISH will study this fungus to create the biopesticide with help from two new instruments. The HPLC or high-performance liquid chromatography machine measures and identifies what specific molecules are produced by individual isolates of Trichoderma, while the digital droplet polymerase chain reaction (ddPCR) instrument can identify tiny genetic pieces of DNA from those Trichoderma in soil samples to determine how much is there.

The Trichoderma machine will read samples and help research at KPU at the Institute of Sustainable Horticulture.

 

Both instruments were purchased thanks to a grant by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and will help provide the data needed for the Trichoderma project to get the go-ahead from Health Canada.

 

The researchers at ISH need to prove which strain of Trichoderma they are using, what the molecular byproducts are and if these byproducts will harm water, other plants and animals. The HPLC machine will help researchers identify those byproducts of a fungus to set it apart from the others.

 

Once a sample is put into the machine, it generates its own unique pattern which shows up on the computer. Just like thumbprints, the pattern is used to identify the composition of molecular byproducts related to the strain of Trichoderma that produced the sample.

 

“They [the patterns] are spectrophotometer peaks responding to specific wavelengths of light. The chemical creates a pattern that we can then identify with standards and further analysis with other instruments,” says Henderson.

 

To help identify the DNA, the Institute is working with the PCR machine and Dr. Paul Adams in the metabolic and genomic lab at KPU Surrey.

 

“The DNA fingerprint gives us some protection for commercialization – we can prove it’s our product in the formulation.”

 

While this project is looking at protecting plants against diseases, other projects at ISH are developing fungi that kill insect pests – an alternative to insecticides.

 

“Our project are for horticulture but we have colleagues around the world working with similar fungi for control of bed bugs, house pests and more,” says Dr. Henderson, citing lice or grain storage pests as two more examples.

 

The HPLC machine isn’t just for fungi. It can be used for various research purposes.

 

“It can identify many different plant compounds produced by plants. Many standards are available for plant extracts and if not, there are ways to develop your own. To use the HPLC for these purposes, you just have to reprogram it for a different job. It’s quite versatile.”

 

ISH hopes to use the HPLC for other projects involving stevia, hemp and traditional Chinese herbs.

 

For more information about the Institute, visit http://www.kpu.ca/ish.

 

Story by Sucheta Singh