IS-MPMI > COMMUNITY > Interactions > Posts > InterStellar: Interview with 2022 ASPB Stephen Hales Prize Awardee Dr. Xinnian Dong
Sep 20
InterStellar: Interview with 2022 ASPB Stephen Hales Prize Awardee Dr. Xinnian Dong

At the Plant Biology 2022 meeting in Portland, OR, Dr. Xinnian Dong, Duke University, received the Stephen Hales Prize from the American Society of Plant Biologists. This award honors the Reverend Stephen Hales for his pioneering work in plant biology published in his 1727 book Vegetable Staticks. It is a monetary award established in 1927 for an ASPB member who has served the science of plant biology in some noteworthy manner.

In addition to responding to the questions below, Dr. Dong recently completed a Q&A piece with Current Biology in which she addressed many questions that may be of interest to readers of IS-MPMI Interactions.

Q1. What area(s) of molecular plant–microbe interactions do you feel your research has impacted most?

One of my former postdocs told me that my lab's research is more about understanding how plants turn off immunity than activating immunity. Even though this description is not completely correct, it emphasizes my research interest in how organisms avoid self-damage during a defense response. To satisfy this interest, the study of plant immune systems has great advantages over animal immune systems given that plant immune responses are activated in coordination through sophisticated regulatory mechanisms with other cellular functions, whereas animals have specialized cells designated to perform only immune functions. Indeed, in the past 30 years, my lab has discovered immune regulations at transcriptional, translational, cellular, and organismal levels involving processes such as protein secretory, DNA damage repair, and circadian and redox rhythms that integrate environmental factors such as humidity. Even the NPR1 protein that my lab has identified and studied all these years seems to have the do-it-all role in plants. In addition to inducing the expression and secretion of a wide range of stress proteins to confer systemic acquired resistance, it also manages the homeostasis of these stress proteins by forming biomolecular condensates to resolve the immune response to ensure cell survival under stress conditions. This single protein has kept me frustrated and fascinated for all these years!

What sustained my enthusiasm toward this line of research is its potential in developing new strategies for engineering crops with broad-spectrum disease resistance. I believe that broad-spectrum disease resistance should be a major goal for future crop engineering because it takes out the guesswork for consumers. (Can you imagine buying health insurance for just one disease?) In this direction, my lab has made a conceptual breakthrough by showing that broad-spectrum disease resistance can be achieved without the associated fitness cost in field-grown rice by making the translation of NPR1 pathogen-inducible. This was achieved using the 5' leader sequence of the mRNA encoding a transcription factor known as TBF1, the translation of which is normally repressed under nonstress conditions to avoid cell lethality, but is rapidly and transiently induced upon pathogen challenge. We demonstrated that mRNA 5' leader sequences, such as the one from TBF1, are easy, but effective, engineering targets for controlling protein production.

Q2. What advice do you have for young scientists aspiring to achieve the level of science that has a major impact?

Find time to think. Sunday afternoons in the office and each morning before getting out of bed are my quiet time to think. Even though we are in an information age, our brains have yet to evolve new ways of thinking. Therefore, the old way still works best. To find a potentially good research project requires serious consideration, patience, and opportunities. Sometimes, a project has great potential, but the tools are not there yet to bring it to fruition. This is when patience is needed. In the end, many impactful discoveries are made under unexpected circumstances. One common ingredient for these chance discoveries is the preparedness of the scientist.

Q3. 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?

When I was a postdoc, the "hot topic" at the time was the cloning of "R genes," which mediate the so-called gene-for-gene resistance. I was not involved in this effort because I was concerned that the resistance loci found in different crop species against a diverse array of pathogen signals might encode random proteins that were only discovered in agriculture due to the use of monocultures. Instead, I was interested in searching for and studying "basic" immune mechanisms in plants, which turned out to be systemic acquired resistance and pattern-triggered immunity. I wanted to find common plant defense mechanisms that are not specific to a pathogen signal. Of course, I was pleasantly surprised and excited when R genes were cloned and found to encode proteins with conserved structures.

After 30 years, the MPMI field is now a well-established discipline. Newcomers will have to think harder to identify a research direction in which their current expertise can give them an advantage, while their lack of training in the MPMI field is not a big enough obstacle to prevent them from getting started. We need newcomers to keep the field young.​​

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