NSF awards $778,000 early career grant to Bluhm for plant fungi research, outreach project

Sept. 30, 2013
Contact Information:

Burt Bluhm, Department of Plant Pathology
479-575-2677 / bbluhm@uark.edu

Dave Edmark, Agricultural Communication Services
479-575-6940 / dedmark@uark.edu

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Burt Bluhm
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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – For the next five years, Burt Bluhm will be looking into fungi that cause disease on the leaves of crops such as corn, sorghum and soybean and the strategies they use to infect the plant. He’ll be involving plenty of people on Arkansas farms and overseas as he does so.

Bluhm, an assistant professor of plant pathology in the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, will pursue his work as the recipient of a $778,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s early career development program for faculty (NSF-CAREER). Bluhm joined the university faculty in 2008.

The awards program supports “junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research,” NSF said. “Such activities should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.”

Bluhm will examine Cercospora pathogens of crop plants, specifically how they utilize stomata, naturally occurring openings in leaves and stems, to initiate disease. Evidence suggests that many species of Cercospora utilize sophisticated methods to time their attack on host plants, in part through their ability to sense light and use it to set a molecular clock similar to the circadian clocks of humans. It’s a process that has received little study.

Although Bluhm’s project centers on basic research, he will take his work to the farmers most affected by the problem he is investigating. “My key focus in this area is educating growers about the role basic research plays in crop improvement,” he said. Bluhm observed that “Arkansas growers have a track record of supporting biotechnology, including the development of transgenic crops and biological control products. I look forward to sharing information with them about how biotechnology can address problems that specifically affect Arkansas agriculture, and receiving feedback from our stakeholders on this topic.”

His project will include an educational program called “From Lab to Field to Table: How Basic Research Affects Agriculture,” which will partly focus on Cercospora diseases and mycotoxins. Bluhm, who has frequently spoken to growers’ groups in the state about fungicide resistance in Cercospora and mycotoxins such as aflatoxin, will continue similar activities as part of the project.

“Discussions will be held about the research proposed in this project, such as how pathogens mount their attack and how computer-based tools can identify new approaches to combat fungal pathogens,” he said. Bluhm plans to do so by participating in several events a year such as Division of Agriculture field days and Arkansas Farm Bureau forums.

Bluhm also plans to involve undergraduates in the work to expose them to basic research. In recent years his lab has hosted 16 undergraduate researchers from the UA and other institutions. “I am strongly committed to mentoring participants’ development as scientists, and a chance to work in the lab will provide undergraduates in Arkansas and neighboring states a unique opportunity to experience basic research,” he said.

The project will also contain an international component in collaboration with two faculty at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. Cercospora diseases are often devastating in Africa, and there’s an urgent need for more scientific expertise on these fungi. Bluhm will develop training courses for Pretoria on the genomics of gray leaf spot in Africa and the U.S. with the overall goal of training South African students, researchers and educators about Cercospora biology. The courses will be offered for two of the project’s five years.