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Individual Highlight

Cheatgrass Biocontrol with "Black Fingers of Death"

Photo of The seed pathogen known as The seed pathogen known as "black fingers of death" on killed cheatgrass seeds, showing the fingerlike black fruiting structures (stromata). Susan Meyer, USDA Forest ServiceSnapshot : Understanding the effects of slow-growing versus fast-growing pathogen strains may be the key to successfully slow down or stop cheatgrass seed germination.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Meyer, Susan E.  
Research Location : Provo, Utah
Research Station : Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS)
Year : 2014
Highlight ID : 703


Cheatgrass is one of the most destructive plant invaders in the west with significant economic and ecological impacts on rangelands and agricultural lands. The seed pathogen "black fingers of death" is a promising tool under consideration for biocontrol of cheatgrass. Forest Service scientists and their partners have characterized the toxins employed by this pathogen to kill target seeds. They learned that fast-growing pathogen strains are not always most effective for biocontrol, because slow-growing strains produce more cytochalasin B, a powerful toxin that may slow down or stop cheatgrass seed germination. The seed pathogen "black fingers of death" is considered a possible tool for biocontrol of the invasive winter annual cheatgrass within the context of restoration seeding in the Great Basin. The interaction between this pathogen and its target seeds has been called a "race for survival." Seeds often escape mortality through rapid germination, so the research focused on the hypothesis that fast-growing strains of the pathogen would be most effective for biocontrol. The scientists later learned that slow-growing strains were actually better than fast ones at killing germinating cheatgrass seeds. they then proposed that these slow growers might be spending their energy making energy-costly toxins to stop the seeds in their tracks. They recently confirmed this idea with the help of colleagues expert in secondary products chemistry, who have identified and quantified the toxins produced by the pathogen. Slower-growing strains produced significantly more of the powerful toxin cytochalasin B, a compound that can stop cell division and that probably serves to slow or stop cheatgrass seed germination, providing a longer window for pathogen success. This discovery provides the scientist with a useful selection tool for choosing the best pathogen strains for cheatgrass biocontrol.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

  • Dr. Marco Masi, Brigham Young University
  • Prof. Antonio Evidente, University of Naples Federico II

Program Areas