Research Areas: Plant-microbe interactions, secondary metabolites, aflatoxin, biodegradable plastics in agriculture
B.S., Biology, University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh
M.S., Botany and Plant Pathology, Oregon State University
Ph.D., Molecular and Cellular Biology, Oregon State University
NIH NRSA Postdoctoral Fellow – University of Washington (Microbiology)
NIH NRSA Postdoctoral Trainee – University of Wisconsin (Plant Pathology)
Marion is trained as a molecular microbiologist, and applies her knowledge to agricultural problems. Her research focuses on microorganisms associated with agricultural crops, and on secondary metabolites that mediate communication among members of the agroecosystem. Currently her research has two main foci.
Project 1. Aflatoxin. Aflatoxicosis is a health problem that pervades tropical and subtropical regions, where an estimated 4.5 billion people in developing countries are chronically exposed to aflatoxin in foodstuffs. At high levels, aflatoxin exposure is lethal, and sporadic outbreaks of deaths by the hundreds due to aflatoxin poisoning of grains have been reported. Chronic low-level aflatoxin exposure leads to liver cancer and a host of other medical complications. Aflatoxins are metabolites produced by Aspergillus spp., a plant pathogenic fungus that infests and contaminates many agricultural commodities in warm climates. Three research areas relate to aflatoxin in my lab. First, my group has focused on Aspergillus cell-surface receptors to discover which one(s) perceive the plant and fungal hormones that stimulate aflatoxin production. Second, we are developing of a novel detection method for Aspergillus for use in the field. Third, we are characterizing plant natural products that confer resistance to Aspergillus or repress aflatoxin synthesis.
Project 2. Biodegradable plastic in agriculture. Degradation has historically been considered an undesirable attribute of plastic polymers, because breakdown shortens product life span and durability. Recently, awareness of the environmental problems presented by plastic waste in the natural environment has made biodegradable plastics an attractive alternative to conventional plastic materials. Although many plastic products bear the label “biodegradable” or “compostable”, in practice, degradation may be too inefficient for complete mineralization (conversion to biomass, carbon dioxide and/or methane, and water), except perhaps in specialized composting facilities. In addition to slow degradation rates, misuse of the term “biodegradable” has led to distrust of these products by consumers. As part of a highly interdisciplinary, national team exploring the sustainability of biodegradable plastics in agriculture, our lab group here at WWU is isolating and identifying bacteria and fungi that are capable of degrading biodegradable plastic polymers.