David Butler and Kurt Toenjes

MSUB biology professors David Butler, left, and Kurt Toenjes show off specimen plates with fungus related to a patent they created along with lab manager Joy Goffena on Thursday, August 3, 2017.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

A discovery by scientists at Montana State University Billings may help forest managers battle the next epidemic of bark beetles.

Research at the university found that a specific molecule, as well as a few variants, slow the growth of fungi related to the mountain pine beetle and the western pine beetle. Managing the fungi could help slow the next large-scale beetle infestation.

MSUB science professors David Butler and Kurt Toenjes, who chairs the biological and physical science department, secured a patent for their findings on June 27 with lab manager Joy Goffena.

“What is not known is if we disrupt the fungus, do we kill the beetle?” Toenjes said.

The research builds off of more than a decade of research. Both professors have backgrounds in molecular biology and filed for the university’s first patent in 2007. That research focused on blocking a fungus found naturally in humans that can cause infections in medical patients whose treatments suppress the immune system.

That research led to a patent in 2010.

Toenjes said they started searching for other uses of the fungus-inhibiting drug. A light bulb went on while Toenjes met with people who work with Diana Six, a bark beetle researcher and professor at the University of Montana.

The fungi and the beetles have a symbiotic relationship and depend on each other to survive, according to patent materials filed by Butler and Toenjes. The beetles carry the fungi on their exoskeletons and deposit it inside trees as they colonize the wood.

Though not proven, some believe the fungus is directly responsible for the “beetle kill,” or dead trees left after infestation. The patent materials from Butler and Toenjes note that it’s unknown whether the beetle, fungi or some combination of the two cause the trees to die.

Nevertheless, Montana alone saw 6 million acres of infected forest from 2000 to 2013. Forestry officials believe the epidemic has peaked in the region.

But after hearing about the bark beetle fungi, Toenjes thought the inhibitor molecule might work. Six provided the first fungi samples, he said.

“Out of those conversations, I thought, 'Why not?'” Toenjes said.

Butler, Toenjes and Goffena secured their initial patent for the research molecules in 2016. Research began with grants from the National Science Foundation and the Montana Board of Research and Commercialization Technology.

Many MSUB students were key contributors to the lab work, Butler said. The researchers tested the inhibitor drug on the fungi — Grosmannia clavigera, Ophiostoma montium and Ceratocystiopsis.

The research worked; their inhibitor molecule slowed the growth of the fungi, and they received their patent. The professors are just beginning to announce the findings.

“One thing we haven’t done yet is publish any papers on it,” he said.

It’s still unclear how exactly the inhibitor drug might be used to curb beetle infestations. Field tests will be needed to see how the drug works in an infected tree.

Toenjes said that it shouldn’t be the intent to kill all bark beetles, which could have consequences in another part of the ecosystem. It’s also not their goal to kill all the fungi. Other types exist in the forest and help break down organic matter.

In short, Butler said that their intention is not a mass-scale forest debugger.

“It’s more targeted,” he said. “Protecting high-value trees.”

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Reporter for The Billings Gazette.