“Botanophilia” and “Epichloe” aren’t household words, but they matter to each other—at least sometimes—and they also matter to Dr. Thomas Bultman of the Hope College biology faculty, who will be studying them in Europe this summer through a grant from the National Geographic Society.

The research is intended to clarify the sometimes symbiotic relationship between the Botanophilia fly and the Epichloe fungus, and along the way it may also offer insights into the subtle and complex interactions at work within ecosystems.

Bultman, a professor of biology who has taught at Hope since 2001, first conducted research on the topic in the latter 1980s, finding that the flies help the fungus, which lives on grass, to reproduce much like bees pollinate flowers.  “Our early work on that showed pretty clearly that the fly was required for the fungus to continue its life cycle,” he said.

More recently, though, researchers in both Oregon and Poland have found examples of the Epichloe fungus reproducing without any help from the flies at all.

Through the $16,152 National Geographic Society grant, Bultman will build on his own work as well as the other scientists’ work as he and his team of Hope students test a new hypothesis that reconciles the differing results.  They’re exploring whether or not the interaction depends on the species of grass on which the fungus is growing as well as differences in the fungus.  In some cases, the fly might be required; in some, it might not play any role; in others, the fungus might reproduce with the fly’s help—or not.  It’s work that has even been taking the Hope team to Europe.

“Last summer, a couple students and I went to France and worked on a species that hasn’t been worked on before,” Bultman said.  “We found it didn’t matter if the fly was present or not.”

“This summer will reflect a continuation of that—different sites, different kinds of grass, different kinds of fungus—to see if that hypothesis continues to hold water,” he said.  “No one has ever collected these data from that kind of fungus in Europe.  It will be a nice test.”

Bultman and two students will go to Poznan in western Poland for six weeks this summer.  They will work with Dr. Marlena Lembicz of A. Mickiewicz University in Poland, one of the researchers whose work has helped prompt Bultman’s new study.  Bultman will also be doing some additional work in Aubonne, Switzerland, working with Dr. Adrian Leuchtmann of the university, ETH-Zurich.  When they return to Hope, Bultman and his student researchers will continue to work with the samples and information they collect.

Bultman focuses in his research on plant-fungal-insect interactions, with a particular emphasis on conditions that dictate the degree to which they are mutualistic or antagonistic.  Among his other research projects and external support through the years, in 2011 he received a $355,217, four-year grant from the National Science Foundation to study how varieties of a fungus help protect Canadian wild grass from creatures that might eat the grass.  He has also previously received two other grants from the National Geographic Society in support of his work.  He is an associate editor for the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Fungal Ecology.