Course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs)

CUREs enable participation in authentic and relevant research for entire classrooms of students, unlike internships. Not every undergraduate research experience is CURE, however. A course must have the following five defining characteristics to be considered a CURE: 1. The course must use scientific practices currently utilized in research, 2. It must have an unknown outcome and therefore foster true discovery amongst students, 3. It must be focused on broadly relevant or important work, 4. Students must collaborate and work together in groups, and 5. iteration, where the research process is not just repeated more than once but also changed and improved, is also required. This experience is beneficial to students both in terms of gaining research experience as well as creating a more inclusive environment for those historically marginalized in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. Unlike independent research projects, CUREs also help ensure equity of participation and awareness of research opportunities that may otherwise be unavailable to students. CUREs confer numerous benefits to both students and instructors including increased STEM interest, increased STEM career interest, student retention, higher graduation rates, improved science efficacy and identity, and improved science skills and content knowledge, and authorship of conference presentations and even scientific publications.

The Plants Fight Back Cure

The goal of the “Plants fight back” CURE is to develop peptide-based biofungicides for control of fungal diseases in crops. Fungal diseases cause 12-15% yield loss in crops, and some fungal pathogens produce mycotoxins that pose a major threat to human and animal health. Fungal diseases such as wheat head scab, wheat rusts, rice blast and sheath blight, soybean rust, and banana black sigatoka are a major threat to food security and food safety globally. The fungicide market is therefore projected to be a $17 billion industry by 2022. However, fungal resistance to fungicides and environmental damage are major global challenges that often follow increased application of fungicides. Some plants demonstrate antifungal properties when attacked by fungal pathogens via compounds (antifungal defensins) that inhibit the growth of the attacking fungi thereby limiting infection. All higher plants in the plant kingdom produce antifungal peptides, such as defensins, during their normal growth and development and in response to pathogen attack. For example, Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) produces a defensin during seed maturation that has been demonstrated to exhibit broad spectrum activity against plant fungal pathogens. Radish (Raphanus sativus) produces an antifungal defensin in the seed and protects it from fungal attack during germination and early seedling growth. Harnessing these plant-generated peptide-based biofungicides provides a more environmentally sustainable approach to fungal disease control.

Research question/theme:
In this CURE, undergraduate students in collaborative teams will design and conduct experiments in their classrooms to generate new discoveries on the potential of  antifungal plant defensins and NCR peptides from a species of Medicago truncatula to control gray mold disease caused by Botrytis cinerea in relevant food crops e.g. tomatoes, strawberries, grapes, lettuce and flowers (for example, roses). This CURE lab can be integrated into several undergraduate labs e.g., microbiology, mycology, plant physiology, and botany-related lab courses.

Student learning objectives from this activity:
Students will gain an understanding of fungal biology and be able to answer the following:

  • How do fungal pathogens infect host plants?
  • What is the disease cycle of a fungal pathogen (for example: Botrytis cinerea)?
  • How do plants fight back against fungal pathogens?
  • How do scientists grow fungi in vitro?
  • How do scientists purify antifungal peptides and determine their antifungal activity?
  • How do scientists perform in-planta infection assays and record fungal infections under laboratory conditions?


  • Grow cinerea fungal pathogen in the laboratory.
  • Purify recombinant defensin peptide using chromatographic techniques
  • Inoculate seedlings of your chosen food crop with cinerea fungal pathogen and apply plant defensins in planta (drop-inoculation or spray assay method).
  • Incubate plants for ~ 48 hours
  • Fungal disease scoring (lesion size) using an imaging device.
  • Analyze images using Image J software for Antifungal activity of plant defensins against cinerea

Options for potential food crop plants to use in Plants Fight Back include:

  • Tomato
  • Lettuce
  • Apples
  • Grape
  • Strawberry
  • Raspberry
  • Bell peppers


Scientific Personnel:

 Dr. Dilip Shah is a Principal Investigator at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. His lab is involved in studying the interactions of fungal pathogens with their host plants and developing strategies for the development of disease resistant transgenic crops.  The major focus of his lab is investigating the modes of action and biological roles of a group of plant defense proteins known as defensins and defensin-like peptides that inhibit the growth of a broad-spectrum of fungal pathogens and expressing these proteins in transgenic crops for control of economically important fungal pathogens. Dr. Shah has over 30 years of experience in plant-microbe interactions and agricultural biotechnology.  He has made substantial contributions to the development of herbicide- and virus-resistant crops and led a team of scientists working on fungus-resistant crops during his previous tenure at Monsanto Company.  He has published more than 90 peer-reviewed papers in various journals and is a co-inventor on a number of patents on the generation of disease- and herbicide-resistant crops.  His patents on herbicide-resistant crops were listed as “Ten Patents That Changed the World” in 2003 year-end publication of Intellectual Property Worldwide.

Postdoctoral Associates

Meenakshi Tetorya, PhD
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Hui Li, PhD
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Djami Tchatchou, Arnaud Thierry, PhD
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Ravi Kalunke, PhD
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Vishnu Sukumari Nath
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Education Research and Outreach Personnel

Ruth Kaggwa, PhD
Education Researcher and Program Manager
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Kathryn M. Parsley, PhD
Education Project Manager
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Please contact to learn more about taking this activity to your classroom.