Necessity is the mother of invention as the old saw goes, and scientific discoveries that benefits millions often have roots in personal conundrums.
Such was the case for John Jelesko, associate professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. After a yard clean up following the freak Derecho storm of 2012, he contracted a poison ivy rash from the cord of his electric chain saw that had passed through a patch of the plant.
Dealing with the rash caused him to want to find a way to effectively destroy the plant using a natural remedy. He found that there had been a lot of research on urushiol, the oil that causes the rash, but there was scant evidence on the plant itself. So, Jelesko set about to find ways to control poison ivy, for example using a naturally occurring fungus.
Jelesko recruited Matt Kasson, a senior research associate in the same department to help uncover the fungus.
The research team discovered the killer fungus in their attempt to generate sterile seedlings to use in study. Jelesko noticed that not only were some of the seeds failing to germinate, but on the seedlings that did germinate there was blight similar to what he was he was trying to produce in the lab. The team took a DNA extraction from the fungus and found it was consistently growing on the tissues. Moreover, by just placing the fungus at the base of roots, the fungus caused wilting and chlorophyll loss on the seedlings such that at seven weeks after fungal inoculation all but one of the poison ivy plants had died.
“This poison ivy research has the potential to affect a large segment of society,” Jelesko said. “We have makings of a nonchemical way to control an invasive plant that can be used by homeowners and others who manage outdoor sites.”
Their work is especially valuable in light of the fact that a 2006 study showed that as the earth warms, poison ivy is predicted to grow faster, bigger, and more allergenic, causing much more serious reactions that could send an increasing number of people to the hospital.
“When poison ivy can’t be treated with over-the-counter treatments and requires an outpatient visit, then we are talking about a public health concern that is very real,” said Kasson.