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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Student Research Sprouts Renewable Energy

Dakota Voitcu investigates how fungi impact plant growth.

Feb. 11, 2020, by Dan Bernardi

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Through a SOURCE grant, one student is researching how fungi may help poplar trees grow larger and require less fertilization.

Biofuels are fuels made directly or indirectly from organic material called biomass. Biofuels burn cleaner, release fewer pollutants into the atmosphere and are considered renewable because they are made from organic material that can be replenished. One potential source of biomass is the wood harvested from poplar trees.

Through a SOURCE grant, Dakota Voitcu, a senior majoring in biotechnology, is researching how introducing fungi to the poplar tree can increase the plant’s growth and make the plant easier to break down during the biofuel production process.

Voitcu and Katie Becklin, assistant professor of biology, are investigating how arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) and ectomycorrhizal fungi (EMF) impact plant physiology and growth in poplar under varying nutrient conditions. Plants associated with these fungi may grow larger and require less fertilization due to their relationship with the fungus. This would both reduce the use of lands needed for biofuel crops due to greater biomass yield from one plant and reduce the amount of fertilizer used. In collaboration with Heather Coleman, associate professor of biology, they will also determine if this relationship may alter the woody composition of the plant, making it easier to break down during the biofuel production process.

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Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (dark blue spots) colonization in a poplar root.

Producing biofuel crops more efficiently using these fungal relationships could be one way of combating climate change and reducing the overuse of fertilizers.

The Syracuse Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement (SOURCE) fosters and supports diverse undergraduate participation in faculty-guided scholarly research and creative inquiry. Student participants progress through initial training in research or other creative skills, to designing and revising the structure of their projects, and culminating in research, creative and professional contributions that are original and timely.