Karen Snetselaar, Ph.D.

Professor of Biology

Areas Taught: Biology, Chemical Biology, Environmental and Sustainability Studies, Environmental Science

Expertise: Plant Pathology, Invasive Plant Species, Backyard Gardening

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Understanding the Fundamentals of Fungal Diseases in Plants

Botanist Karen Snetselaar, Ph.D., is investigating the corn disease Ustilago maydis (corn smut fungus). Why? Not because it’s a particularly nasty threat to corn crops. It isn’t.

Instead, this disease is used as a model to help scientists understand how fungi recognize a host, how they cause infection, and other general principles of fungal pathogens. Ultimately, that research could translate into a better grasp of how fungal diseases – think Candida or athlete’s foot – play out in humans.

“The corn plant doesn’t know it’s being infected,” says Snetselaar. “The fungus has evolved to evade its detection systems. It’s fascinating.”

The model is ideal because infection can be induced in a few days, humans cannot contract it – good news for students working in the lab – and both the fungus and the plant have been studied separately for many years, she explains. Her basic research – using microscopes to learn how the fungus and plant interact – “can be relevant to other disease-causing fungi that are more difficult to study.”

In addition, Snetselaar has developed a “Plants and Civilizations” course that traces the impact of plants on humans throughout history. The tomato, for example, traveled from South America to Europe – and forever changed Italian cuisine.

She has advanced public outreach around the importance of plants through a number of projects. One involved the survey of plant species along the Cynwyd Heritage Trail. In another, she and her students catalogued the trees on Saint Joseph’s campus. She also is the director of a science education outreach program called GeoKids LINKS, which has for more than 10 years brought hands-on science into Philadelphia elementary schools.

Snetselaar has appeared on WHYY’s “You Bet Your Garden” several times and has done media interviews on invasive species. The Philadelphia Inquirer profiled her work on the Cynwyd Heritage Trail.

She is widely published, including in Nature and Fungal Genetics and Biology, and is the managing editor of the journal Mycologia.