The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Heading Off Head Blight

The Challenge

Head blight caused by Fusarium graminearum threatens worldwide wheat production, resulting in both yield loss and mycotoxin contamination. Molecular biologists at UMass Amherst are using MGHPCC to understand pathogenicity at the systems level with the goal of developing novel disease control strategies. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that 25% of the world’s crops are tainted with mycotoxins, resulting in substantial food/feed contamination. The prevalence of Fusarium mycotoxins in the food chain raises great concern about food safety and the potential detrimental health effects to humans and other animals.

The Innovation/Technology

The pervasive fungal pathogens in the Fusarium genus with the aim of understanding genetic mechanisms behind mycotoxin production and developing effective disease management strategies. Work in the Ma Lab combines experimental and computational biology approaches: growing and analyzing samples in the lab and then reading and analyzing their genomes and transcriptomics data using UMass computers housed at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center.

The Impact

Trichothecenes, produced by F. graminearum cause weight loss and feeding refusal in livestock; and zearalenone, produced by F. graminearum and related species, has been linked to reduced fertility and spontaneous abortion in animals and is likely a dietary source of increased estrogenic load in humans. Other mycotoxins occurring in food have longer-term chronic or cumulative effects on health, including the induction of cancers and immune deficiency.

The Solution

In one of several projects underway in her lab, Ma and her collaborator Prof. Lixin Gao in the UMass Amherst Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering reconstructed the global F. graminearum gene regulatory network (GRN) from a large collection of transcriptomic data using Bayesian network inference, a machine-learning algorithm. The GRN reported in Guo et al, 2016 reveals connectivity between key regulators and their target genes. They used the level of mRNA as a variable for each gene and monitored the dependencies among all gene pairs. This first-ever reconstructed filamentous fungal GRN primes scientists understanding of pathogenicity at the systems biology level and provides enticing prospects for novel disease control strategies and mycotoxin management.

Li Guo, Guoyi Zhao, Jin-Rong Xu, H. Corby Kistler, Lixin Gao, Li-Jun Ma (2016), Compartmentalized gene regulatory network of the pathogenic fungus Fusarium graminearum, New Phytologist – published online 14 March 2016, doi: 10.1111/nph.13912
Li Guo, Andrew Breakspear, Guoyi Zhao, Lixin Gao, H. Corby Kistler, Jin-Rong Xu and Li-Jun Ma (2015), Conservation and divergence of the cAMP-PKA pathway in two plant pathogenic fungi, Fusarium graminearum and F. verticillioides, Molecular Plant Pathology, doi: 10.1111/mpp.12272
Contact Info

Li-Jun Ma
Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology
(413) 545-1205