Marion Brodhagen , PhD
Professor · she/her
I grew up on a dairy farm in the Midwest and attended a state university similar to WWU. My first after-college job involved plant natural products. Our research lab was attempting to produce the then-famous anticancer drug, Taxol, from tissue cultures of the Pacific yew trees that produced it. One day, I asked my coworkers why the trees made this elaborate compound – did it deter insects? Did it kill wood-rotting fungi? No one knew the answer, and the conversation quickly moved on. But I was riveted, and realized I had found the question I would work on for as long as I could: what is the role of these “odd compounds”? After a couple of years, I went to graduate school to study secondary metabolites. In my master’s work, I scrutinized how certain herbivory- and competition-deterring chemicals in the leaves and roots of an invasive weed responded to environmental conditions. My PhD was about bacterial secondary metabolites that turned out to be signaling molecules used for bacterial communication. In my postdoc, I learned how fungal pathogens and their plant or animal hosts “eavesdrop” on each other’s chemical messages. Here at WWU, I continue to work on secondary metabolites. I also have kept my research focused on problems of agriculture, because of my roots on the farm. When I'm not in the classroom or the lab, you might find me out hiking in the mountains, or out dancing tango, or paddling a kayak on the waters of the Salish Sea. On a quiet winter's night, I'm usually curled up with my two cats, Midge and Rigo, reading a good book or watching Sherlock Holmes re-runs.
There are always several projects ongoing in the laboratory. Listed below are the current main research directions for our research team. If you are interested in joining our research group, and would like to hear more about these projects or others, please contact me.
1. Natural plant products inhibiting aflatoxin production. I am fascinated by the way that plants, which are silent and sessile, interact with both mutualistic and pathogenic symbionts via chemical communication. Our lab uses the fungus Aspergillus to study these interactions. Two projects in my lab center on plant secondary metabolites that inhibit growth of the fungus Aspergillus, or inhibit its production of the potent carcinogen, aflatoxin (which frequently contaminates crops used for human food and animal feed). The first project regards terpenes found in non-host leaf tissues that prevent fungal growth and aflatoxin production. The second project is collaborative between my lab and Jeff Young’s lab (Biology). We have discovered that a branch of the phenylalanine ammonia lyase pathway is required for the native resistance of Arabidopsis seeds to Aspergillus.
2. Use of biodegradable plastics in agriculture. Degradation has historically been considered an undesirable attribute of plastic polymers, because breakdown shortens product life span and durability. Recently, awareness of the environmental problems presented by plastic waste in the natural environment has made biodegradable plastics an attractive alternative to conventional plastic materials. Although many plastic products bear the label “biodegradable” or “compostable”, in practice, degradation may be too inefficient for complete mineralization (conversion to biomass, carbon dioxide and/or methane, and water), except in specialized composting facilities. In addition to slow degradation rates, misuse of the term “biodegradable” has led to distrust of these products by consumers. Our lab studies the agricultural use of “biodegradable” plastics from a soil microbiology perspective, with a current focus on the effects of plastic fragments on the ecosystem and in particular, the soil microbiota.
Students interested in research opportunities (BIOL 395, BIOL 494) are invited to first look up our group's recent publications using PubMed or Google Scholar. Then, if the work still seems like a good match, and if you are able to commit a minimum of ten hours per week to the research, please email me with an up-to-date resume and transcripts. Please include in your letter of inquiry the reason(s) that this research is a good match for you and your career goals.