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Sep 16
InterStellar: Interview with 2021 APS Fellow Honoree Dr. Saskia Hogenhout

Saskia Hogenhout, John Innes Centre, UK, has been named a 2021 Fellow of The American Phytopathological Society (APS). This honor recognizes distinguished contributions to plant pathology in one or more of the following areas: original research, teaching, administration, professional and public service, and extension and outreach.

1. What area(s) of molecular plant-microbe interactions do you feel your research has impacted most?

I believe my research has most impacted the fields of bacteriology, vector-borne disease, and molecular plant-microbe-insect interactions. At the time I started research on phytoplasmas, the majority of bacteriologists studied culturable bacterial plant pathogens, such as Pseudomonas, Xanthomonas, and Erwinia species, and their type III secretion systems and effectors. In contrast, phytoplasmas are obligate colonizers of plants and insects, reside in the cytoplasm of their host cells, and secrete their effectors via sec-dependent pathways. My research has shown that research on nontractable organisms is highly rewarding, as it has led to the characterization of reactive small effector proteins that can induce dramatic changes in plant development and attract phytoplasma insect vectors to plants. These phytoplasma effectors act like molecular glues that short-circuit key plant pathways. Phytoplasma effectors have been useful tools to study connections between plant development and defense processes.

2. What advice do you have for young scientists aspiring to achieve the level of science that has a major impact?

I think it is important to remain interested and inspired by the scientific topic being studied. When times get tough, the science itself will give you the resilience, excitement, and positivity to move forward. In addition, it builds the self-confidence that what you are doing is high impact, no matter what others may think about it.

3. When you were a postdoc, what had the largest influence on your decision to enter your specific research area in your permanent position? Was this a "hot topic" at the time, or did you choose to go in a different direction?

I started my tenure-track position just after I received my Ph.D. degree. I was inspired by the work of Skip Nault, who published many research papers and reviews on phytoplasmas. I was intrigued by the findings that infections by these bacteria induce changes in plant architecture and plant-insect interactions. Given my expertise in insect-vectored plant pathogens gained from my Ph.D. work, I was in an excellent position to dissect the molecular mechanisms that underpin phytoplasma-induced symptoms. The work of Skip was widely known in the vector-borne plant disease field, but I had the impression that few people in the bacteriology field knew about phytoplasmas. The dogma at that time was that hormone imbalance triggered disease symptoms, and when I started my lab, people frequently asked me about hormone imbalances induced by phytoplasmas. However, my team found that the developmental symptoms are induced by small protein effectors that degrade key transcription factors. Given that most scientists worked on culturable plant pathogens, my team's work on the nonculturable phytoplasmas was seen as novel, and I think this helped me to get funding for the research.​

Mar 19
InterStellar: Interview with Newly Elected AAAS Fellow Dr. Barbara Kunkel
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Yeram Hong 

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Front row (left to right): Ilea Chau, Jamie Calma, Yuritzy Rodriguez, Yuan Chen, Karl Schreiber. Back row (left to right): Jana Hassan, Hunter Thornton, Jennifer Lewis, Maël Baudin, Jacob Carroll-Johnson, Jack Kim.

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Dr. Barbara Kunkel

Yeram Hong and Jennifer D. Lewis

Yeram Hong is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley in her third year. She is double majoring in forestry and genetics and plant biology. From a young age, Yeram was interested in the natural environment, with a particular interest in plant biology. Her current research interests include protein function in plant nuclear membranes and bacterial plant pathology. Outside of academia, Yeram enjoys drawing, caring for her many houseplants, and reading literary fiction.

Jennifer Lewis is a principal investigator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and an adjunct associate professor at UC Berkeley. Her lab studies the plant immune system and its response to the bacterial pathogen Pseudomonas syringae. The Lewis lab is committed to diversifying plant sciences. To encourage this, they are performing interviews with prominent scientists in the field to discuss their research and their perspectives on diversifying science.

Dr. Barbara Kunkel

Dr. Barbara Kunkel is a professor at Washington University in the Department of Biology, where she leads a research group and teaches courses in general and plant biology. Her lab is interested in the complex biological communication between bacterial plant pathogens and their hosts, as well as the bacteria’s virulence mechanisms. Her research group takes a genetic and molecular approach in looking at both bacteria and their plant hosts to develop a more clear and integrative view of disease. Currently, Dr. Kunkel is interested in investigating the molecular mechanisms of disease caused by Pseudomonas syringae in Arabidopsis thaliana. More specifically, she works to understand how auxin, a plant growth hormone, may play a role in these plant–bacteria interactions. She is particularly interested in understanding how bacteria sense auxin and respond to it and the significance of this interaction. Prof. Kunkel’s research is important in obtaining a fundamental understanding of the virulence strategies pathogens use. This knowledge can be used in the future to develop breeding, cultivation, and control strategies to address the global issues of crop failure and agricultural pathogen outbreaks. By providing fundamental knowledge about the interactions between bacterial pathogens and plants, she believes that her discoveries may be crucial to developing novel biological technologies to address crop losses from disease.

One of her major discoveries was the identification of the coronatine virulence factor as a jasmonic acid mimic in the Arabidopsis–Pseudomonas pathogenic interaction. Her lab stumbled upon CORONATINE INSENSITIVE 1 (COI1), a gene that encodes the coronatine receptor, while examining plant mutants that were particularly resistant to bacterial infection. At the same time, another researcher in her lab, who was focused on the bacterial side, isolated several mutants in a biosynthetic gene cluster in P. syringae that coded for coronatine. Connecting these observations, her lab realized coronatine was particularly significant. Although coronatine had been previously identified, her lab was able to find their “first indication that manipulation of plant hormone biology [aside from purely defense hormones] was important in these pathogen interactions.” They had discovered a virulence factor that the pathogen used as a hormone mimic to modulate the biology of its host!

To recognize her considerable and valuable contributions to the scientific community as an educator, mentor, and researcher, Dr. Kunkel was awarded the AAAS Fellowship as one of the elected Fellows of 2020. In response, Dr. Kunkel commented: “I was surprised to tell you the truth…but I was also very thrilled [as] it gives me some exposure that I would not have had otherwise.” This opportunity allows people to learn about her research and become more interested in the topics that she is researching. Through her achievement, she is paving the way in science as a role model for future women scientists to look up to and have the conviction that success is possible.

Despite her research successes, she had not originally planned on entering this career path. From a young age, Dr. Kunkel had a love for horses and other large animals and dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. Following her dreams, she attended the University of California, Davis. There, she became drawn to the pastoral life of working in the agricultural sector and began studying agricultural sciences. However, this was not meant to be, as she stated, “it was unrealistic because I’m not a farm kid, I’m a city kid.” In her second year of college, Dr. Kunkel found her true passion in a genetics course taught by Dr. Francisco Ayala. She became a genetics major, specializing in plant biology and bacteriology.

After graduating from UC Davis, Dr. Kunkel was unsure about her next steps. However, she loved to learn and was just being introduced to the world of scientific experimentation; graduate school seemed like the next step. Interested in symbiotic relationships, she looked for a graduate school where she could study plant–microbe interactions. Although she was not able to find the right opportunity in this line of interest, she obtained her Ph.D. degree at Harvard studying gene expression in Bacillus subtilis in Dr. Richard Losick’s Lab. For her postdoc, Dr. Kunkel decided to pursue research in the area of plant–pathogen interactions because she wanted to work with plants again and she “wanted to study a system where you could do the bacterial part and the plant host was genetically tractable.” She completed her postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, with Dr. Brian Staskawicz, studying disease resistance in plants using a genetics approach to investigate which genes control the ability of a plant to detect the pathogen and activate defense responses.

Although Dr. Kunkel had never planned on becoming a university professor, she realized while obtaining her Ph.D. degree and completing her postdoc that she loved the scientific process. During her postdoc, Dr. Kunkel decided she wanted to run her own lab. While she was working in the Staskawicz lab researching disease resistance, she continued to wonder, “What’s the pathogen’s part in this?” She began planning to start a lab that would also study the pathogen as well as the plant host. At this time, researchers had discovered the type III secretion system (T3SS) in bacteria. Using this system, bacteria can inject into their plant hosts proteins that directly affect plant physiology and make the plant more susceptible to infection. Fascinated by the recent discovery of the T3SS, Dr. Kunkel decided that one of her first projects would be to study virulence mechanisms in P. syringae and find out more about the proteins being injected.

02Kunkel_Image2.jpgAs a woman in science, Dr. Kunkel wondered if she could manage a full-time, professional career as a professor. Her mother expressed concerns about her career path as a researcher, intimately aware of the time and dedication required for the job as Dr. Kunkel’s father was a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Although her parents did encourage her curiosity and to pursue the opportunity, her mother did not believe that Dr. Kunkel, who was in a serious relationship at the time, would be able to “be a mom with kids and a homelife and be a professor.” Along with these concerns, Dr. Kunkel found there was a lack of role models who could show her that this was in fact possible. She stated, “I wanted to look around and try to find role models or examples of what I wanted to do…[but] there weren’t a lot of role models for me at the time.” From her perspective as a professor, Dr. Kunkel emphasized the importance of role models. She said,

There has to be that first role model…. I think if you’re going to be the only woman, and if everybody is white, the only woman of color, that’s two barriers. You have to be the first one, and you have to be the role model? That’s a lot to do…. I teach a freshman biology class in which we have a lot of attrition in that first semester because it’s a challenging class. A lot of people go, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t handle this.’ And, what we think would be helpful would be…that all the students could see themselves as scientists regardless of their background, [whether they’ve] taken AP Biology [or are] the first generation to go to college [or if] they’re black. How can we help them see themselves as succeeding there?

Another difficulty with being a woman in science was that she found it hard to be recognized for her accomplishments. When she was receiving more opportunities than some of her male colleagues, she said, “Some of them [said], ‘You’re getting all of these interviews because you’re a woman.’ Like ouch, I’m a good scientist and I’m a woman.” She also recalled a story from her years as a postdoc:

I think I did experience some of that when I was a postdoc, and I remember at some point [my co-postdoc] was trying to tell the boss about my results. And finally I just said, ‘Let me tell him. I did this.’ I don’t know if he was consciously trying to grab the credit for it, if he was thinking I couldn’t speak for myself, or what was he doing. The funny thing is this guy is a very very good friend of mine to this day. We had a few rough times in there where I had to just say, ‘Back off guy!’

Despite these past experiences, Dr. Kunkel believes that things are changing for the better. She believes that while the situation is still not perfect, there has been an increase in the number of role models that women can look to to know that they can actively pursue science. With additional focus on the effect of implicit bias and more strategic dispersal of funding for small labs and minorities to pursue research, Dr. Kunkel believes that we can continue to work toward a more diverse and inclusive scientific community.

When she is not busy in her lab, Dr. Kunkel loves to be outdoors. She enjoys hiking and gardening, which she says could be why she likes plants so much. She is also an avid reader and is currently part of a book club where she is exposed to many different genres and authors. When asked about her favorite types of books she exclaimed, “I like books with strong women!”

Mar 19
InterStellar: Interview with APS Award of Distinction Honoree Dr. Jan Leach

Kamal Kumar Malukani

Dr. Jan Leach (Colorado State University) was the recipient of the 2020 Award of Distinction from The American Phytopathological Society. This award, the highest honor APS can bestow, is presented on rare occasions to persons who have made truly exceptional contributions to plant pathology. Dr. Kamal Kumar Malukani, a postdoc in the lab of Dr. Ramesh V. Sonti at the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India, recently interviewed Dr. Leach to learn more about the qualities that one needs to become a leader in the field of plant pathology.

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​Dr. Kamal Kumar Malukani

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Dr. Jan Leach


1. Many scientists, especially those early in their careers, find it difficult to manage a balance between their professional and personal life. How do you manage it?

I don’t know that I did manage it particularly well! My husband, also a plant pathologist, and I started our faculty positions at the same time, so we were both going through the tenure and promotion process together. We shared an understanding of the pressures and demands of our positions. We respected and, very importantly, supported each other’s choices and challenges, which really helped as we worked through the ranks. We joked that we often passed each other in the door, one coming and one going, much of the early parts of our careers. So, I would say understanding and respecting each other’s situation played a big role.

2. Thinking back to the beginning of your career, can you provide one or two things you wished you had known that might have made starting your career easier?

As passionate scientists, we focus our early training on getting deeper into the science. We are frequently very focused on learning what is needed to support our research. But, unfortunately, we are often not well-trained in how to manage people, which is a critical part of running a successful lab. For me, it was “on-the-job” learning, and as a young faculty member trying to build my program, it was a hard go. Fortunately, I found good mentors to reach out to for sound advice. I still do that; more than 30 years of experience, and I still reach out to mentors, some decades younger than me, for guidance on how to handle tough people problems.

3. What do you believe is the biggest question in the field of MPMI today, and why?

One of our biggest questions is how we will identify and stabilize plant disease resistance in the face of a changing climate. Adapting crops to withstand disease in the face of changing temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns is not trivial. We have observed that some disease-resistance genes lose efficacy with a few degrees of increase in temperatures. Other resistance genes are more effective at high temperatures but may fail under drought conditions. Successful crop production in the future will likely depend on more complex solutions, discovered by studying the plant, pathogen, and environment as an interacting system (phytobiome) and integrating more diverse options into our tool kits. Successful translation of those solutions will likely require those of us in MPMI to work even more closely with those nearer to the field and the growers, including breeders, agronomists, and extension specialists.

4. You have been involved in a lot of science, as well as the administrative side of work. How do you manage this transformation?

The secret is working with talented, independent, and smart people who are patient with my split position. I have kept my research program running because it is the candy in my job, i.e., the part of the job where I am most comfortable and find the most joy. It also helps keep me grounded in the issues and challenges faced by the faculty I serve as associate dean for research. Balancing the two parts of the job is difficult, and I battle the constant feeling that I am not doing either job very well. But, we all have a limited time, and I try to give the best output in both parts with the help of people around me.

5. What advice would you like to give to emerging scientist that will help them in the long run?

Probably the best advice I received as an assistant professor was “Choose your battles wisely!” In other words, consider carefully if this is a cause or battle that is really important and worth investing your time and energy. You only have so much energy and time…conserve them for the important causes and issues.​

Mar 19
InterStellar: Interview with World Agriculture Prize Recipient Dr. Pamela Ronald
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Nick Colaian​ni​


Nick Colaian​ni

I had ​the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Pamela Ronald who was recently awarded the 2020 World Agriculture Prize for her ach​ievements in agricultural research and science education. Dr. Ronald is a leader in the research field of plant responses to environmental and pathogen stresses. Additionally, she is an advocate and educator for sustainable food practices and modern crop breeding strategies. She has a fabulous TED talk and has written a book with her husband on modern crop science and organic farming practices titled Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. This Q&A session was designed to learn more about her accomplishments, understand the challenges humanity faces in fo​od production, and the ways science has and continues to address these issues.

1. In your own words, can you provide a brief introduction of your research and interests?

“I have been working on the interaction between plants and microbes for many years. My interest in this research started when I was an undergraduate. My plant physiology professor at Reed College taught me about plant–microbe interactions, and it sparked my interest. Then, while doing my masters at Stanford, Dr. Brian Staskawicz came and gave a talk on his lab’s work, and it left an impression on me. After my Ph.D. work, I decided to work in Dr. Staskawicz’s lab. There I focused on plant–microbe interactions, where I have now spent a bulk of my career.”

At the helm of her own lab, Dr. Ronald and her team identified Xa21, a receptor in rice, using positional cloning. This receptor confers resistance to the devastating Xanthomonas oryzae pv. oryzae pathogen. Almost immediately after publication, “a colleague of mine that I had known for several years, Dr. Dave Mackill, came by my office and asked if I would help him isolate another gene in rice that plays a role in stress tolerance. I was immediately interested.” This gene, Sub1A, turned out to be instrumental for conferring tolerance to submergence. Its discovery led to an, “exciting international project to create flood-tolerant rice varieties for farmers in India and Bangladesh.”

2. Can you go a bit more in-depth about the creation and distribution of Sub1A rice varieties?

“Well this whole process was started by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). The mission of IRRI is to help abolish poverty and hunger in regions that depend on rice for most of their calories.

Rice fields in India and Bangladesh were constantly being flooded, resulting in devastating yield losses, so farmers looked to the scientists at IRRI to help. At the time, IRRI had built up a large and diverse rice seed collection, which they used to screen rice varieties for submergence tolerance.

Dave Mackill had worked in South Asia before working at UC Davis and knew how important this work was. Researchers at IRRI had identified a rice variety with tolerance to submergence. Dave then mapped the submergence tolerance (Sub1) trait as a quantitative trait locus (QTL). This was when Dave came to me and asked if we could collaborate on isolation of Sub1 using positional cloning. We were successful and named the key gene Sub1A.

Dave used marker-assisted breeding to introgress Sub1A into commonly used rice varieties. This breeding practice is not considered a genetically modified organism (GMO) and is not regulated. IRRI researchers collaborated with breeders at breeding stations in India and Bangladesh to test the performance of the Sub1 varieties.” Last year, 6 million farmers in India and Bangladesh grew Sub1 rice with an average yield advantage of 60% after flooding.” See this perspective for more information.

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Dr. Pamela Ronald

​​3. If you were to make the argument for GMO products to someone against it, what would you tell them?

“Well, I would first try to understand what they were afraid of. The term GMO means something different to everyone. Interestingly, GMO isn’t even used by the FDA because genetically modified organism doesn’t accurately describe any breeding process really. Often, a person who identifies as ‘anti-GMO’ is afraid of large corporations like Monsanto, or they heard that ‘GMOs’ require more chemicals, and they don’t like that. This is why it’s really important to understand the root of each person’s fears of GMOs, so you can narrow the discussion to address individual questions.

When trying to explain to a group of people why modern genetics is useful in agriculture, I think it’s important to give specific examples. That’s the one thing that just changes people’s mind. Two examples I usually give are genetically engineered papaya that are resistant to the deadly Papaya ringspot virus and Bt eggplant in Bangladesh that reduces the need to spray chemical insecticides. Both genetically engineered crop varieties have improved plant yields and the lives farmers.

Now in the world of COVID-19, more people are familiar with viruses and their infective nature. This is a good example, because some people may be interested to know that viruses also infect plants. This allows you to then engage people by using their knowledge about the vaccine for COVID-19 to explain the techniques used by plant scientists to ward off pathogens. Also, something I realized while writing my book was, why would the average American know a lot about farming? And, how much would they actually know about it? This is also a really important thing to keep in mind when talking about GMOs with people. Many people may not understand or know the farming practices used today and what challenges farmers face.”

4. In your point of view, what are some of the toughest challenges facing agriculture right now? And, how might agriculture look in 2040 to address these problems?

“I think problems associated with climate change, like increased flooding, which I’m now more aware of, droughts, and unpredictable insect infestations, like the fall armyworm sweeping through Africa, are going to be tough. There are scientists and modelers trying to predict new infestation events, but it is proving very difficult. The work we do now is similar to what breeders have been doing for 100 years or so, but we now have to work smarter and faster to keep up with all of the changes occurring around the world.

Additionally, we will have to start growing more food, while reducing emissions. This is something that wasn’t really being talked about when I first entered the field. It was more about reducing chemical inputs. So, now we have to also think about enhancing soil fertility, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and using water more efficiently.

This is seemingly a daunting task; however, Dr. Ronald is optimistic that scientists can work toward solutions. “The field is rapidly advancing, and new technologies are now starting to be developed and tested to address these problems.”

5. In your mind, what are some of the most intriguing questions concerning pattern recognition receptors and their role in plant immunity?

“Well, I think an emerging topic that is still sort of a black box is the relationship between development and immunity. There is great work from Dr. Joanne Chory and others on the SERK receptors that are involved in both immunity and development. When this relationship was discovered years ago it was pretty surprising, and now there are many great examples of the relationship between development and immunity.

I think the other complicated aspect of this area is that immunity has been traditionally thought of as a linear concept—immunogen interacts with receptor, and this induces a linear pathway that results in a response. However, we now know that the responses to immunogens are much more complex than this. For instance, there are receptor complexes and receptors that can double dip into immunity and development. I think trying to sort out the balance and inner workings of this is really fascinating and will be studied for a long time.”

6. For pattern recognition receptors (PRRs) and resistance (R) genes, what needs to be done to increase their use and efficacy against pathogens?

“There are examples where different resistance genes have been stacked [placing multiple R genes into a plant], and this provided additive and, hopefully, more durable resistance. I think some steps to improve the process will be trying to predict how resistant and durable these added genes will be in a crop plant. This involves doing epidemiological studies where you think about the population diversity of the pathogen in the field. This allows you to predict the types of mechanisms the pathogen has to overcome and the methods being placed into plants to confer durable resistance. You really need to know the effector repertoire of a pathogen population and the interactions they have with the receptors of interest. This allows you to answer the question, ‘Are there pathogen strains in the field that can already overcome the R gene(s) or PRR(s) being added?’ There really is no shortcut to the process of engineering durable resistance.

We are still learning a lot about utilizing plant immune components to increase pathogen resistance. For example, being able to introduce many R genes at a single time in a cassette of genes would be a great step forward. Currently, it takes a long time to breed many R genes into a population. If people become more accepting of genetic engineering, this could decrease the time needed to introduce resistance genes into plants, which is exciting.

For a long time, there has been the hypothesis that PRRs that recognize conserved virulence factors or immunogens would be more durable in the field than R genes. However, I don’t think this has been very well validated or tested in the field. One reason may be because much of the research on PRRs, like FLS2, is carried out on non-crops. So there are very few studies that examine if these theories hold up in the field. Even for Xa21, where plants carrying this gene have been grown in the field for years now, there really hasn’t been any thorough epidemiological studies to determine if this resistance is indeed more durable than the resistance provided by other types of resistance genes such as NBS-LRR genes. Researchers have discovered bacterial strains that evade Xa21 in the field; however, to my knowledge it is not known if they become problematic to farmers. So, what does that mean? Does the evolution of the ability to evade Xa21-mediated immunity result in strains that are compromised in virulence somehow? You really can’t determine this unless you do large-scale field trials that look at the pathogen population over time.”

Sep 16
Ann Lichens Park is a 2019 Fellow of The American Phytopathological Society (APS).

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Ann Lichens Park, USDA-NIFA,(center, with President Kira Bowen and Immediate Past President Mary Palm) is a 2019 Fellow of The American Phytopathological Society (APS). This honor recognizes distinguished contributions to plant pathology in one or more of the following areas: original research, teaching, administration, professional and public service, and extension and outreach. 

1.  What area(s) of molecular plant-microbe interactions do you feel your work has impacted most?

When I first started working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the early 1990’s, genomics was just beginning to infiltrate the agricultural sciences. By the late 1990’s, only a small number of agriculturally relevant microorganisms had been sequenced. From 2000 to 2009, along with colleagues at the National Science Foundation (NSF), I administered a Microbial Genome Sequencing competitive grants program that supported the sequencing of well over a hundred agriculturally relevant microorganisms. As a National Program Leader at USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), I have a “bird’s eye view” of the leading edge of plant-microbe interactions. It has been thrilling to see how the work supported in the Microbial Genome Sequencing Program has advanced both basic and applied science related to plant pathology and to interactions between plants and beneficial microbes. It has turned plant pathogens that were very difficult to work on into “model systems.” More generally, it has been a privilege to be able to observe the impact of genomic sciences on agriculture.

 

2.  What advice do you have for young scientists aspiring to achieve the level of science that has major impact?

Whether a young scientist’s research is basic, applied or both, she or he should keep in mind the work’s potential to improve people’s lives. The connection between a scientist’s work and the people who benefit from it may be direct or indirect. It may benefit people by improving the health of the environment in which we all live or the other creatures that share our environment.The work may have impact in the short-term or in the long-term. Keep thinking about how that impact might be achieved.

 

3.  When you were a postdoc, what had the largest influence on your decision to join NIFA (CSRS)? Was there a “hot topic” that you considered researching instead?

I enjoy focusing on the “big picture” and my job allows me to do that. Molecular biology and genomics have always been areas of science that have captured my interest.  It is fascinating to learn about the clever ways that plants and microorganisms overcome the challenges that they face in order to survive.

Sep 16
Savithramma Dinesh-Kumar wins the 2019 American Phytopathological Society Noel T. Keen Award

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Savithramma Dinesh-Kumar, University of California-Davis, (center, with Immediate Past President Mary Palm and President Kira Bowen) is the 2019 winner of the American Phytopathological Society Noel T. Keen Award. The Keen Award recognizes research excellence in molecular plant pathology. Nominees have made outstanding contributions and demonstrated sustained excellence and leadership in research that significantly advances the understanding of molecular aspects of host–pathogen interactions, plant pathogens or plant-associated microbes, or molecular biology of disease development or defense mechanisms.

1.  What area(s) of molecular plant-microbe interactions do you feel your research has impacted most?

NLR immune receptor function in pathogen recognition and immune signaling; role of inter-organellar communications during immunity; and the role of autophagy in programmed cell death and immunity. 

2.  What advice do you have for young scientists aspiring to achieve the level of science that has major impact?

Try to be broad in your thinking and ask questions that will lead to significant advances or a paradigm shift rather than just making incremental advances. Don't hesitate to embark on questions that challenges established dogma(s).

3.  When you were a postdoc, what had the largest influence on your decision to enter your specific research area in your permanent position? Was this a “hot topic” at the time, or did you choose to go in a different direction?

I joined Barbara Baker's group at UC Berkley/PGEC as a post-doc because I wanted to combine my virology knowledge with plant genetics and answer questions from the host side on how viruses exploit hosts. I was involved in cloning one of the first NLR immune receptors that confers resistance to a virus in Barbara Baker's group. Since we knew nothing about how NLRs function, I decided to work on this area in my permanent position. Although NLRs were cloned 25 years ago, it is still a hot topic today. I personally believe that in any area of research there is always a "hot topic" because there are so many fundamental unanswered questions in biology.


Sep 16
An interview with Saskia Hogenhout, winner of the British Society of Plant Pathology’s RKS Wood Prize

Saskia_Hogenhout_3.jpgSaskia Hogenhout (John Innes Centre) is the 2019 recipient of the British Society of Plant Pathology’s RKS Wood Prize. The prize is named and awarded in honor of Professor RKS Wood to acknowledge his role in driving the establishment of the discipline “Physiological Plant Pathology”. The prize celebrates excellent science in the study of plant disease biology and its application in the protection of plants against pathogens.

1.  What area(s) of molecular plant-microbe interactions do you feel your research has impacted most?

Genomics and mechanistic molecular research on insect-microbe-plant systems traditionally viewed as non-tractable, notably leafhopper-transmitted phytoplasma bacteria and the notorious aphid insect pests. Also, demonstrating that bacterial effectors act beyond suppressing plant immunity by reprogramming plant development and enhancing susceptibility to insect vectors. And, contributing evidence that phytoplasma effector genes lie on mobile genetic elements, knowledge that has been used in comparative phylogenomics analyses to show that effector genes move horizontally across phytoplasma genomes.

2.  What advice do you have for young scientists aspiring to achieve the level of science that has major impact?

Take leadership in pursuing your passion, be open to and creatively use opportunities that are presented to you, enjoy learning, seek advice from your colleagues, at all levels, without losing sight of your own goals, be grateful for all you achieved so far, and be patient.

3.  When you were a postdoc, what had the largest influence on your decision to enter your specific research area in your permanent position? Was this a “hot topic” at the time, or did you choose to go in a different direction?

I always have been intrigued by how parasites communicate with their hosts. Upon my PhD graduation, I considered to do a postdoc on Plasmodium (Malaria) - mosquitoes interactions and I wrote a research proposal for this. But then I got an opportunity to start my own research program on molecular insect-plant interactions at The Ohio State University. When Prof Lowell (Skip) Nault told me about his research program on spiroplasmas and phytoplasmas, I was sold. The rest is history.


Sep 16
Youssef Belkhadir Receives Weihenstephan Science Prize of the City of Freising

OB Eschenbacher honors Youssef Belkhadir (left) and Corinna Dawid Photo-City of Freising.jpegThe Weihenstephan Science Prize of the City of Freising is awarded every two years in order to promote Freising as a university and science city of international standing, and at the same time to promote outstanding scientific achievements at the Freising-Weihenstephan location. Dr. Belkhadir received the award along with colleague Corinna Dawid. Both Belkhadir and Dawid worked as a team to study plant immune responses. More information can be found here. ​

Sep 16
Congratulations to 2019 IS-MPMI Congress Poster Award Winners

​The poster sessions at this year’s IS-MPMI Congress in Glasgow, Scotland, spotlighted just some of the amazing work that’s being done by the society’s members. Past IS-MPMI President Regine Kahmann organized a competition for poster presenters, and the MPMI journal sponsored prizes for the top-five graduate student-presented posters. More than 300 poster presentations were evaluated for visual aesthetics, content organization, speaker communication, and scientific impact. Each of this year’s winners received a congratulatory certificate and £100.

2019 Winners

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Emile Gluck-Thaler, The Ohio State University

View their poster

View their abstract


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Clemence Marchal, John Innes Centre 

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View their abstract


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Hector Montero, University of Cambridge

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View their abstract


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Meenu Singla Rastogi, IBENS-CNRS, France

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View their abstract


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Mamoru Matsumura, Nagoya University

Poster will be available at a later date.

View their abstract


A huge thank-you is owed to Regine for organizing the competition. Sixteen other judges graciously agreed to evaluate and rank the posters. This was not a small undertaking, and the judges deserve tremendous recognition for their volunteer efforts. 

Poster Competition Judges

Maria Alvarez

Laura Grenville-Briggs Didymus

Peter Dodds

Caroline Gutjahr

Jeanne Harris

Ping He

Sheng Yang He

Saskia Hogenhout

Regine Kahmann

Thomas Kroj

Erh-Min Lai

Mary Beth Mudgett

Uta Paszhowski

Keehoon Sohn

Jens Stougaard

Yuanchao Wang

Alga Zuccaro


Jun 11
InterStellar: ​Jan Leach Receives Agropolis Foundation Louis Malassis International Scientific Prize for Agriculture and Food

Jan Leach, Colorado State University (CSU), received the Agropolis Foundation Louis Malassis International Scientific Prize for Agriculture and Food​ in the category “Distinguished Scientist.” She received the award in Montpelier, France, during the 4th World Congress on Agroforestry in May. The Agropolis Foundation Louis Malassis International Scientific Prize is awarded every 2 years and recognizes individuals for their “exemplary and promising contribution in promoting innovation through research, development and/or capacity building, in order to improve food and agricultural systems sustainability, as well as to address food security and poverty reduction.” As the associate dean for research in the College of Agricultural Sciences at CSU, Leach works with plant pathogens and insect pests and has focused on stabilizing disease resistance in rice to reduce losses, particularly in the developing world. Leach served as President of IS-MPMI from 1999-2001.


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