As a high school student in Germany, Michael Gutensohn’s interest in plant biology was cultivated by exceptional high school biology and chemistry teachers, as well as parents who let him grow vegetables and fruits in a corner of the backyard.
That love and curiosity for understanding how plants work propelled him through college and two post-doctoral positions and is, ultimately, what continues to drive him as a professor and researcher at West Virginia University.
His tenacity was rewarded earlier this year when he was awarded the Ray Marsh and Arthur Pingree Dye Professorship, the first named professorship in the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.
Tom and Sue Tatterson, alumni and ardent supporters of the WVU Davis College, pledged $350,000 to the creation of the professorship, which honors their favorite professors, the ones who aided in their education and guided them through their careers.
The five-year professorship seeks to advance teaching, research and service by providing a broad range of support to an outstanding faculty member in the college’s Division of Plant and Soil Sciences.
Among the newest faculty members in the division, Gutensohn was shocked to learn he would be the first recipient of the professorship.
“To be honest, in the first moment when I heard about it, I was quite overwhelmed,” he said. “I had not expected that I would be the first recipient and I am sure each and all of my colleagues would deserve this award for their hard and good work. I feel very honored and I am sure this will help me to establish a productive research program over the next five years.”
His research centers on the biosynthesis, biological function and application of plant volatiles.
In other words, he's interested in the scent of flowers, the flavor of fruits and how they help attract pollinators and defend against pests.
"Plant volatiles are not only important for the scent of flowers or the flavor of fruits that we humans enjoy," he said. "They are also very important for the attraction of pollinators which, in many crops, determine the yield and quality of fruits, as well as the defense of plants against pests by either repelling the pest or attracting enemies of the pest."
Ultimately, Gutensohn wants to improve these volatiles so that farmers can produce good tasting fruits of high quality as well as crop plants that are better protected against pests allowing them to be grown in more sustainable ways.
Given the relationships plants have with insects — both beneficial and harmful — Gutensohn knows it's important for him to take a collaborative approach to research.
That's why he's teamed up with Yong-Lak Park, associate professor of entomology, to explore ways to protect cultivated tomato plants from aphids — small, soft-bodied insects that suck sap from the plant stems.
While the aphids and their feeding practices are not necessarily dangerous to the plants, they do transmit viruses that can be detrimental.
"Cultivated tomatoes are the result of long lines of breeding," he said. "When you select genes for one thing you're inevitably counter selecting for others. For a long time, breeding was focused on obtaining the best yields and other agro-economic traits, but wasn't necessarily targeted toward beneficial or antagonistic plant-insect interactions."
Somewhere along the way, the traits that help protect the plants from pests like aphids have gotten lost in the breeding process.
In an effort to reintroduce them, Gutensohn is observing how wild tomato plants protect themselves from the insects.
"Wild plants are constantly under selection pressure," he explained. "They have to maintain everything it takes to defend themselves. So, if you think about it, these plants are potentially a good source for finding these traits and then eventually bringing them back into cultivated plants."
Wild tomato plants are chemically quite different with respect to their scents — especially on the leaf surface which is an aphid’s initial point of contact with the plant.
His research methods include engineering the cultivated tomato plants by inserting terpene, a by-product of plant metabolism in the wild tomato plant, into different tissues or cell types within the plant parts.
Those plant tissues include trichomes, the abundant hair-like structures covering the plants, the first layer of cells, and the part of the plant’s vascular system that transports sugars.
“Something new we’re doing here is considering the feeding behavior of these insects,” he said. “We know they take time to orient themselves on the plant and probe plant tissues to see if the taste is suitable. By introducing these compounds into different places where they are tasting, will they become repelled or intoxicated, forcing the feeding to stop?”
That’s where Park’s expertise comes into play.
He’ll monitor the feeding behaviors of the aphids using an electronical penetration graph which is, in short, is a fine gold wire attached to the insect’s body with special glue and a small voltage is applied to the plant via an electrode placed in the pot.
“When aphids penetrate the plant surface with their mouthpart, current will flow through the circuit and a series of waveforms are produced,” Park explained. “By measuring changes in resistance in the plant, the detailed feeding behavior inside the plant tissue can be monitored and we will know where insects are feeding regarding the location of cells with terpenes.”
Although the information is useful immediately with respect to the tomato plants, the potential long-term benefits to other crops are what is most important to the researchers.