Kwang-Hyung Kim, a graduate research assistant at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech and Ph.D. student in the university's Department of Biological Sciences, has been awarded the College of Science's Roundtable Make-a-Difference Scholarship for Graduate Study.

The roundtable, which is a group of distinguished alumni who serve as advisors to the dean of the College of Science, established the scholarship to recognize graduate students who will make a significant difference to the college and the world outside of the university. Awards were given to four student finalists from various departments in the college. Kim, from Puyeo, South Korea, received the top award of a $5,000 scholarship.

Kim’s research in the lab of Chris Lawrence, associate professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and in Virginia Tech’s Department of Biological Sciences, primarily focuses on the identification of pathogenicity factors among secondary metabolite-related genes in Alternaria brassicicola, a plant pathogenic fungus that causes black spot disease in many economically important Brassicas such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, mustards, and canola.

Group members have used bioinformatics approaches to identify specific A. brassicicola genes associated with the production of novel secondary metabolites, which are small molecules produced by fungi that have diverse biological roles. This group of genes is influential in the fungus’s ability to be an effective necrotrophic pathogen, killing plant cells, and then taking nutrients from the dead cells.

Kim and others in the Lawrence lab have developed methods to remove specific genes from the fungal genome and determine if the fungus can still infect plants. Specifically, the group has characterized nonribosomal peptide synthetase (NPS) and polyketide synthase (PKS) genes, which are linked to the synthesis of large and important groups of secondary metabolites in fungi.

These secondary metabolites not only include toxins important for plant pathogenesis but also beneficial substances such as those exhibiting anticancer and antibiotic activities. Kim’s analysis of mutant strains and identification of these secondary metabolite compounds has already led to the discovery of new functions for previously uncharacterized NPS and PKS genes in A. brassicicola and have clarified the role(s) they play in the life cycle of the fungus. This knowledge is broadly applicable across a range of important plant and human pathogenic fungi and may allow for the development of new strategies for crop protection as well as the discovery of novel compounds with biomedical applications.

“On behalf of [the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute], I commend Mr. Kim on being awarded the prestigious Roundtable Scholarship from the College of Science,” said Virginia Bioinformatics Institute Executive and Scientific Director Bruno Sobral. “We are proud he is part of our [Virginia Bioinformatics Institute] family and join the rest of the Virginia Tech community in recognizing this outstanding achievement, as well as his ongoing research in Dr. Lawrence’s lab.”

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