Fusarium and Malting Barley with Dr. Shyam Solanki

Partially blighted wheat heads.
Figure 1. Partially blighted wheat heads due to Fusarium Head Blight.

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Contact Dr. Shyam Solanki via email at shyam.solanki@wsu.edu.

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Episode Transcription:

Drew Lyon: Hello. Welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. In each episode, I speak with researchers WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production. If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat podcast do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app and leave us a review while you’re there so others can find the show too.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Dr. Shyam Solanki. Shyam is a postdoc in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at WSU Pullman. He completed his Ph.D. in plant pathology with Dr. Robert Brueggeman at North Dakota State University in 2018, and then, came to WSU in 2019. He recently joined Dr. Karen Sanguinet’s lab to continue his pursuit of science in the field of plant biology. His scientific curiosities are currently focused on understanding how plant stress response genes regulate the molecular signaling taking place during the interactions with biotic and abiotic factors. Hello, Shyam.

Dr. Shyam Solanki: Hi, Drew. Thanks for having me here.

Drew Lyon: I appreciate you coming and visiting with me about your research. So, talk a little bit about what you did maybe back at North Dakota State, and then, moving to what you’re doing currently. Well, what is Fusarium head blight disease, which is something I believe you worked on a North Dakota State, and how does it affect the quality of small grain crops?

Dr. Shyam Solanki: So, talking about what I did at North Dakota State, I did my Ph.D. from there, and after two years, a postdoc with Dr. Bob Brueggeman, who is now a barley breeder at WSU. And I mostly work on stem rust, but as a part of that, I also explored some other pathogens, and one of them was very interesting, the Fusarium head blight which I worked on quite a lot. And talking about Fusarium head blight, which is also commonly known as scab, is a fungal disease of cereal crops, particularly small grains like wheat, rye, barley, and oats, and this disease is caused by mini fungi in the genre of Fusarium. But the most important in North America is Fusarium graminearum. And to be very honest, this pathogen not only affects production problems but also affects the quantity, as well as the quality of the grain, by producing the mycotoxins, which poses a serious concern if ingested by humans and animals.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so, it’s a problem in many small grains. Why is it particularly problematic in malting grains?

Dr. Shyam Solanki: So, as we all know that barley is one of the most used grains in the malting industry, apart of other grains like wheat, triticale, as well as rye. And barley is also infected by Fusarium graminearum and causing the head blight disease. So, in the malting industry, actually, the maltsters, they pay a premium price, because they want a very clean seed for the malting process. And as I mentioned before, like, if barley is getting infected with Fusarium, which can produce mycotoxins, particularly deoxynivalenol, commonly known as vomitoxin, then it’s very hazardous to health, as well as it produces the gushing problem in beer, which is kind of a spontaneous eruption, and which nobody likes it, right? [ Drew laughs ] So, yeah, so, it is a problem for the malting industry. And in fact, like us, I think it’s less than 0.05 milligram per kilogram of the seeds of DON is acceptable, but sometimes, masters, they have like observed that even if you use the grains, which has a permissible limit of DON, and you use them for malting, they somehow produce like an un-permissible limit of DON contained in the final microbrews. And having this problem, in fact, like they contacted Dr. Paul Schwartz, who is a cereal chemist back in North Dakota State University and that’s how the story got a little bit interesting. When he contacted Bob Brueggeman, who was a pathologist over there, and then, we collaborated on this problem and then investigated how the increased DON content is related to pathogen presence in the malting grains.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so, I guess the next time I open a bottle of beer and it just all comes foaming out, I can blame DON and not the fact that I shook the bottle too much, huh? [ both laugh ]

Dr. Shyam Solanki: Yeah, yeah, that’s true, too. Like, but yeah, don’t shake it, too. [ laughter ]

Drew Lyon: No, I won’t, but I have a good excuse them if it happens. Okay, that’s — so I learned something here today. How do you show that the increase in Fusarium biomass is related to elevated mycotoxin content in the malt?

Dr. Shyam Solanki: So, it was an interesting problem, and most of the interesting problems, they require an ingenious solution. So, what we did is we used two different approaches to show that how the elevated DON content in the malting grain is related to the increased amount of Fusarium pathogen growth. First, Dr. Schwartz and Dr. Zhao Jin at NDSU, they quantified the amount of DON present in the malting grain, and they have also quantified the Tri5 DNA mound, which is the Tri5 DNA amount, which is responsible for producing the DON, and this is coming from the pathogen. And they have found out that during the malting process, the increase in the Tri5 DNA is related with increased DON content, but we still couldn’t identify where the pathogen is hiding in the seed kernel. So, that’s where our lab and our expertise came in the picture, and I and other people in our lab, particularly Dr. Kasal Amin, she is currently a postdoc in Dr. Bob Brueggeman’s lab, and we tried to use confocal microscopy to identify where the pathogen presents, and we also use a sequencing approach to make sure that what we are seeing is actually the Fusarium, not other pathogens. And doing this, we made some interesting observations, and one of them was to identify that in some of the seed kernels, the pathogen Fusarium graminearum is actually present in the internal seed layers, and because of its internal presence, it can avoid the harsh treatment during the malting process. And then, once the germination steps in the malting process, that happens, then the pathogen has a very happy environment for its growth and increases its amount, and eventually, produces more amount of DON, which makes the final malt sometimes unusable for the further brewing.

Drew Lyon: Okay, is going to ask you how it escapes the malting process because you’d think that might destroy some fungus, if it was sitting on the outside, huh?

Dr. Shyam Solanki: Yeah, exactly, because this is a very like, it’s not very new information. Maltsters already knew that sometimes DON increases during the malting process, but there’s mostly speculated the pathogen is either on the husk layer or on the upper seed coat layer. But we find out that a little bit amount of pathogen is present inside the seed layer, which is protecting it. An interesting thing is it’s sometimes resistant. Barley seeds, they also have this pathogen. So, we, I think, like Dr. Schwartz and Dr. Bob Brueggeman, he thinks that may be because of some varieties that are grown in some specific areas, where the pathogen pressure is sometimes higher, because of the congenial environment conditions. And that’s how it helps as a seed amount, which, like increases the overall Fusarium after the malting process.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so, what are some of the major limitations of the approach you took, and how do you plan to address them in the future?

Dr. Shyam Solanki: So, one of the major limitations of our work is related advanced technical know-how and expertise. As I mentioned, we used microscopy, as well as sequencing approach, which is not always readily available and not people are always having the expertise to run them properly, especially considering how we will be like taking this approach and helping the maltsters. I don’t think it’s possible to have the confocal microscopes installed in, yeah, every brewery. But what we can do is we can use the quantitative PCR approach to identify how much of fungal DNA is present, and we can also use isothermal — DNA amplification would just require a like a water bath at 60 degrees, also. So, that can be a very practical approach to identify the fungal DNA contamination in the like seed kernels.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so what are the key takeaways from your study on the Fusarium malting grain host pathosystem?

Dr. Shyam Solanki: So, the key takeaway is that initial low amount of DNA — low amount of DON not always replicates into the better quality of malt. So, we cannot always rely on a low DON level in the grain as a quality predictor for the final quality of the malt. And taking all these things, what we have identified about increase in DON, as well as increase in pathogen, we recommend that the small maltsters, particularly, they should be brewing and like malting in small batches, and every time, making a malt, they’re supposed to testing it before, as well as after, to test if the DON level is permissible or not, because the pathogen is highly virulent on some of the susceptible barley lines. So, we have to keep track of pathogens if we want to have a quality beer and our hand.

Drew Lyon: Okay, very good. So, that was the kind of work you did in North Dakota State. Now that you’re in Dr. Sanguinet’s lab, what sorts of things are you working on?

Dr. Shyam Solanki: Yeah, so that is a very exciting move, because since the last seven years, I worked on biotic interactions on small grains, particularly wheat and barley. In fact, our lab did some very groundbreaking discoveries in stem rust-barley interaction, which is like well-known in our field, but I think, at this point, we decided, like, I wanted to expand my expertise, and Dr. Karen Sanguinet, she is a fantastic scientist working on different aspects of like pennycress abiotic stress responses, and that’s how I thought if I will be working with her, I can expand a little bit my expertise in abiotic stress response and know that field much better. And leverage that information to have a holistic approach towards like solving of the problems of our, you know, farmers who not only want the biotic stress to be addressed, but also addressing the problems associated with abiotic stress.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so, on the pennycress project, is that what you’re working on right now?

Dr. Shyam Solanki: Yeah, so right now, we are working on pennycress. In fact, just in the morning, we harvested a pennycress plot from central field location, and I just ran here.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Dr. Shyam Solanki: Yeah, so, currently, we are collecting the seeds, which we got from our collaborators, increasing them, and our plan is to test them for freeze test to see how tolerant they are for the freeze stress, because the plan is to grow them when the major crop is not grown. That is, basically, in the winter season.

Drew Lyon: Okay, yeah, I had Dr. Sanguinet on the show, I think, late last year talking about her project. So, people might want to, after they listen to your episode, they might want to go back and listen to that to hear the kinds of work that are going to be done on pennycress. As a wheat scientist, I find it fascinating that we turn weeds into crops. What a great way of dealing with something we otherwise struggle with.

Dr. Shyam Solanki: Exactly. That is what science is all about, bringing the novel solutions to address the problem, which can be addressed by a different way of thinking.

Drew Lyon: Yes, excellent. Thank you very much, Shyam.

Dr. Shyam Solanki: Yeah, thank you very much, Drew. Have a nice day.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. If you have questions or topics, you’d like to hear on future episodes please email me at drew.lyon — that’s lyon@wsu.edu –(drew.lyon@wsu.edu). You can find us online at smallgrains.wsu.edu and on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University’s endorsement.