Historic corn smut: using ancient DNA methods to understand risk to UK agriculture

Posted on 1 January 2017

York student awarded prestigious scholarship

Herbarium accession of Ustilago maydis, the pathogen responsible for corn smut disease

We are pleased to announce Charlotte Bingham has been awarded a Laidlaw Research and Leadership Scholarship! The program enables undergraduate students to develop leadership skills and undertake a self-designed research project.

The aim of Charlie’s project is to test DNA from historic samples of Ustilago maydis, the fungal pathogen responsible for corn smut disease. By identifying genetic differences in the historic and modern samples collected in the United Kingdom, she will explore how the pathogen entered the country and whether it is becoming more virulent, thereby providing novel insights for understanding the introduction and spread of important agricultural pathogens.

Under the guidance of Dr Nathan Wales, Charlie will use ancient DNA methodologies to generate and analyse genetic sequence from herbarium accessions. Charlie already has big plans for the project: "I anticipate the findings will encourage further research into agricultural resilience and how the UK can invest resources into the protection and sustainability of cereals in the future. With a focus on food security and sustainability, this research project would aim to assist in the development of methods and techniques to tackle agricultural vulnerability."