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

Mike and Kevin Fedkenheuer infiltrate a plant in John McDowell’s lab (above). McDowell celebrated with the twins when they received their Ph.Ds. (below).

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

In December, the Fedkenheuers graduated with doctorates in plant pathology, physiology, and weed science.

Working with Virginia Tech plant pathology researcher John McDowell, their doctoral research 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 U.S. and worldwide. The twins’ research was supported by a project funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to develop new strategies to reduce soybean crop losses associated with this disease.

When they first came to Virginia Tech, supported by graduate student fellowships from the Fralin Life Science Institute, Kevin went straight into a doctoral program, while Mike first earned a master’s degree in biochemistry.

“Our hope is that one day we could use the bioinformatics training we’ve 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.”