Montana State University

MSU graduate awarded NSF fellowship to study disease affecting world’s citrus crops

August 8, 2016 -- Denise Hoepfner, MSU News Service

Jared Nigg, a 2014 graduate of MSU's Department of Microbiology and Immunology, has received a National Science Foundation fellowship to continue his study of citrus greening disease at the University of California, Davis. Photo courtesy Jared Nigg

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BOZEMAN -- Jared Nigg, a 2014 graduate of Montana State University's Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Letters and Science and the College of Agriculture, has been awarded an National Science Foundation Graduate Research Program Fellowship to continue his research of a disease affecting the world’s citrus crops.

The fellowship will cover Nigg’s tuition and give him $34,000 a year for three years to conduct his research. Nigg says the fellowship will allow him to focus solely on research for the next three years rather than trying to divide his time by teaching to support himself, as well as offer additional benefits.

“The fact that I have my own funding also gives me the flexibility to pursue topics not covered by other funding sources within the lab,” Nigg said. “Additionally, the fellowship comes with a number of benefits such as access to computing infrastructure and the opportunity to apply for programs only available to NSF fellows.”

Nigg, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, is pursuing his doctorate in microbiology at the University of California, Davis in the lab of Bryce Falk, professor of plant pathology. Nigg researches viruses of the Asian citrus psyllid, an insect that spreads a bacterial disease called citrus greening disease. Since it was first confirmed in Florida in 2005, citrus greening disease has decimated Florida’s citrus industry, decreasing orange acreage by 26 percent and yield by 42 percent as of January 2016, according to the University of Florida Extension.

Greening disease is also found in other citrus-producing areas of the world and there are very limited methods of controlling it, Nigg said.

Nigg is researching ways to manage the Asian citrus psyllid, including looking at novel viruses that can possibly be genetically modified to provide biological control.

“I primarily work with Diaphorina citri Densovirus, one of several newly discovered viruses of the insect,” Nigg said. “After participating in the discovery of this virus, I sequenced the viral genome and have been conducting preliminary studies on how the virus is spread between insects. Additionally, I am working toward building a synthetic copy of the virus that we can propagate and manipulate in the laboratory."

The goal, Nigg said, is to be able to engineer the virus to turn off genes the insect needs to survive, thus reducing the fitness of the insect and controlling transmission of citrus greening disease.

“Along the way, I have found evidence that the virus may be targeted by the insect's immune system in ways not previously observed, and I have recently begun a project aimed at clarifying this interaction,” he said.

While at MSU, Nigg researched under Michele Hardy, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and Gary Strobel, professor emeritus in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology.

In the Hardy lab, Nigg studied the interactions between host and rotavirus proteins, with the goal of discovering new interactions that may prove useful in understanding the biology of the virus. Rotavirus is a virus that causes gastroenteritis. The National Institutes of Health estimates that nearly all children in the U. S. are likely to be affected by it before they are 5 years old.

In the Strobel lab, Nigg participated in the discovery of novel endophytic fungi from plants sampled from areas of high biodiversity. Endophytic fungi are fungi that live within a plant without causing apparent disease in the plant. One of the fungi, a new Nodulisporium species, was shown to produce cineole, a compound similar to many of the same hydrocarbons found in diesel fuel, and has applications in biofuel and medicine.

When the fungus was removed from the plant and grown in the laboratory, the amount of cineole produced was dramatically decreased. In order to figure out how to make the fungus produce cineole in the lab, Nigg carried out a study to find ways that the fungus is biochemically regulated to produce cineole. The goal of this work, Nigg explained, was to find an "on switch" to increase production of the compound by the fungus.

“Ultimately, we found that a compound extracted from silver birch could activate cineole production by the fungus when added to the growth medium,” Nigg said.

Strobel calls Nigg “an extremely dedicated and hardworking student.”

“His dedication resulted in scientific publications in two major journals devoted to microbiology,” Strobel said. “This is not common for an undergraduate student. He has the potential to be an excellent scientist, and UC-Davis is an outstanding place to do graduate studies.”

Nigg said MSU’s focus on undergraduate research provided him the knowledge and confidence needed to undertake his own projects.

“While undergraduate research is an important component at most universities, it is rare for undergraduates to be able to work more or less independently on their own projects,” he said. "I was fortunate to have a substantial amount of creative control of my own research in the Strobel lab, something which provided me with the foundation necessary to take a research project from conception to publication.”

He also lauded the university’s efforts in providing opportunities for professional development, which he said contributed to his success in graduate school.

At MSU, Nigg participated in the Hughes Undergraduate Biology program, which gives undergraduates the opportunity to conduct research and present their findings. He also participated in the Undergraduate Scholars Program, which supports undergraduate research, scholarship and creative projects. He presented his work at undergraduate research conferences and wrote a thesis for the MSU Honors College.

“All of these activities provided me with skills that cannot be learned in the classroom and which have been essential for my success in graduate school," Nigg said.

While the details of his future career plans are not yet nailed down, Nigg says it is likely he will work in research.

“I know I will stay in science, but I haven't made a final decision on whether I want to go into academic, industrial or government research,” he said. “As long as I can continue to think about biology, then things are going to be all right.”

Denise Hoepfner, denise.hoepfner@montana.edu or (406) 994-4542

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