BYU faculty test fungus to eliminate cheatgrass

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    By Mark Brinkerhoff

    Everyone who has hiked in the mountains of Utah has encountered the weed called cheatgrass. Though no one seems to know it by name, everyone knows it by its spiky seeds that cling to socks and animal fur.

    Cheatgrass is the most obnoxious of the noxious weeds, and it’s everywhere, said Shrub Lab researcher and project coordinator Susan Meyer.

    Collaborating with three BYU faculty members from the Department of Botany and Range Science, Meyer is conducting an experimental fungi research project.

    “What we want to know is how we can cause an epidemic to wipe out cheatgrass,” Meyer said.

    This is the first time that fungi have been used to potentially control the spread of cheatgrass, Meyer said.

    The weed now covers an estimated 100 million acres of open range — an area the size of Montana, she said.

    The most abundant weed in North America, cheatgrass dies before other grasses, typically in early summer, and quickly dries out. It is notoriously flammable and potentially devastating, she said.

    According to an article published in the Wall Street Journal last month, cheatgrass helped fuel one of the worst fire seasons in history last summer with over six million acres of forest and range — more than twice the average — consumed.

    According to the article, ranges that once burned every 100 years now ignite every three or four. And though cheatgrass is most common on the open range of the western United States, it also grows on the forest floors-further fueling forest fires.

    And that’s just one of its ecological consequences, said BYU professor Bruce Roundy.

    After fire occurs, cheatgrass replaces less resilient native grasses, not only leading to more fires but also damaging plant and animal ecosystems, he said.

    There is a way to combat the spread of cheatgrass, Roundy said.

    A type of fungus called “smut” stops it from producing seeds and thus reproducing, he said.

    BYU professor Dan Fairbanks is doing DNA fingerprinting for the project.

    “It allows us to distinguish between different genetic types of both cheatgrass and fungus,” Fairbanks said.

    By analyzing their strains, we can find out which type of fungus is most effective, he said.

    “Our objective is to wipe out cheatgrass by using fungus that attacks only cheatgrass and nothing else,” Fairbanks said.

    The question is why the fungus doesn’t occur naturally, Meyer said.

    Maybe different strains of smut attack different strains of cheatgrass, resulting in no natural epidemic, she said.

    If they can find what smut to use on the most susceptible types of cheatgrass, they can make some progress in wiping it out, Meyer said.

    But science is only part of the solution, she said.

    It’s really up to society to educate people about the native plant communities, Meyer said.

    “Otherwise we’ll continue to lose more and more plant communities like sagebrush to cheatgrass,” she said.

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