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Twin Virginia Tech doctoral grads work together to engineer a better soybean

January 4, 2017

Kevin and Mike Fedkenheuer with advisor John McDowell at Virginia Tech's Dec. 2016 graduation
Kevin Fedkenheuer (left) and Mike Fedkenheuer (right) pose for a picture with their advisor, John McDowell (center), at Virginia Tech's fall commencement Dec. 16. Photo courtesy of the Fedkenheuers.

Kevin Fedkenheuer can’t imagine life — or science — without his twin brother, Mike.

Last month, the Fedkenheuer siblings graduated with doctoral degrees in plant pathology, physiology, and weed science from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Working with Virginia Tech plant pathology researcher John McDowell, their doctoral projects examined the genes responsible for the soybean plant’s resistance to a pathogen that causes root and stem rot, and how those genes might be leveraged to produce a more disease-proof plant.

The pathogen, Phytophthora sojae, is a close cousin to the pathogen that caused the Irish potato famine and is responsible for billions of dollars of crop loss in the United States and worldwide. The twins’ research was supported by a project funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to use information from P. sojae genomics to develop new strategies to reduce soybean crop losses associated with this disease.

Each brother brought a different skill set to the project, according to McDowell.

“In only a few months, Kevin developed a system for screening for new pathogen resistance genes in soybean. In turn, Mike was able to use his technical abilities honed in the structural biology and biochemistry fields to evaluate and test the system and optimize it for use in a wild relative of soybean that has been under-utilized as a source of disease resistance genes. In this way, their projects were distinct but synergistic,” he said.

The twin brothers’ academic teamwork goes back to when they each received a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from James Madison University.

When they first came to Virginia Tech, supported by Fralin Life Science Institute graduate student fellowships, Kevin went straight into a doctoral program with McDowell, while Mike focused on human disease, earning a master’s degree in biochemistry.

However, it wasn’t long after graduating with this master’s degree that Mike followed his brother to McDowell’s plant pathology lab.

“I couldn’t think of anyone that I’d rather work with or that I could more effectively communicate with about the project we had begun to develop,” Kevin said. “Mike got to hear it from me, in the exact way we understand things.”

Twin brothers work with plants
The Fedkenheuer brothers work in John McDowell's lab in 2012. Photo by Ceci Elpi Leonard.

Working with McDowell, the Fedkenheuers were able to identify disease-resistance genes in cultivated soybeans as well as their wild relatives. These genes represent new tools for soybean breeders to reduce losses to root and stem rot disease.

While the twins are both applying for a variety of positions to move into after their research grant expires in March, their long-term dream is to start a business together focused on the technologies they’ve developed.

“Our hope is that one day we could use the bioinformatics training we’ve also received at Virginia Tech to speed up the process of enhancing disease resistance in crop plants and distribute the technology widely,” said Mike Fedkenheuer. “We really think it could save farmers a lot of stress and money.”

“No matter what, we will always end up working together,” he added. “It’s just a matter of how.”

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