Eilyn Mena is a scientist at the Clemente Estable Biological Research Institute of Montevideo, Uruguay, where she has worked for the past seven years. Her main research is focused on Diaporthe–soybean interactions and the identification of genes involved in fungal pathogenicity and plant defense. Eilyn was the recipient of a Ko Shimamoto Travel Award to attend the 2023 IS-MPMI Congress.
Xiufang Xin received the 2023 IS-MPMI Early Career Achievement Award at the IS-MPMI Congress in Providence, RI. She leads a research group in the Center for Excellence in Molecular Plant Sciences/Institute of Plant Physiology and Ecology.
It's a pleasure to me to have been selected for the interview with her. I listened to her talks at the 2023 IS-MPMI Congress: "Environmental Impacts on Plant–Microbe Interactions" and "Understanding Plant–Pathogen Environment Interactions." I really liked her talks even though I don't work with environmental factors in the Diaporthe–soybean pathosystem. Regarding her scientific work and experience in the plant–pathogen interactions field, I asked her some questions.
For Xiufang it's definitely a great honor to have received the IS-MPMI Early Career Achievement Award in recognition of her academic career. About the award, she said, "There are many great and young scientists in the field, and I feel lucky to receive the award."
Question: Can you provide an overview of your research and your specific focus within the field of plant–pathogen interactions?
Xiufang Xin: We try to understand the mechanisms underlying the interplay between plant, pathogen, and environmental factors. More specifically, we study the plant immune system, particularly the interplay between PTI and ETI, and how high air humidity affects plant immunity and pathogen virulence to promote plant disease. We also have projects investigating the regulation of plant leaf microbiota.
Question: How do you approach disease resistance in plants, and what strategies do you use to develop resistant crop varieties?
Xiufang Xin: By studying PTI-ETI interplay, we hope to offer new ways of strengthening disease resistance in plants. In addition, our study shows that high air humidity suppresses plant immune pathways. By understanding the specific plant elements/modules and humidity affects, we hope to develop plants that are resistant to the influence of high humidity and, therefore, retain immunity vigor under high humidity.
Question: What challenges do you encounter in your research, and how do you work to overcome them?
Xiufang Xin: I think for areas that many people are working on, like plant immunity, there is potential competition. Collaborating with people is always better, and finding unique angles/directions of research is also important. For air humidity-related projects, one challenge is that there is little information, since not much work has been done previously. It's good that people are becoming more interested and more labs are starting to work on related topics. I think the progress in this field will be faster.
Question: I work in plant–pathogen interactions with Diaporthe species in soybean. I want to understand both the pathogen virulence and plant immunity. For these, I sequenced the genome of the fungus, and I analyzed the transcriptome of the fungus and plant at 8- and 48-h postinoculation with respect to control. Now, I believe that other work is necessary to determine the function of the genes and to be able to have an approach to the molecular mechanisms. What do you recommend to me?
Xiufang Xin: I do not have much background information on your project. From your description, I think you need to obtain a list of fungal and plant genes, based on transcriptome analysis, that you want to work on further. One approach is to generate the fungal/soybean mutants and determine which mutants have infection- or disease-related phenotypes. Then, you may narrow the list down to one or several genes and determine how they function, e.g., by investigating their regulatory mechanisms on transcription, protein stability, protein modification, or others.
Question: What do you think about the future of immunity in plants induced by effectors?
Xiufang Xin: I'm guessing that you are talking about ETI. There have been many breakthroughs on ETI and NLR activity in recent years. It's one of the fastest evolving fields in MPMI. I feel it's an exciting time and anticipate there will be many advances in the future.
Throughout her career, Xiufang received her bachelor's degree in biology at China Agricultural University, after which she has developed studies in the United States and China. She is an example for me because I'm from Cuba, where I received my bachelor's and master's degrees. I have been living in Uruguay since 2016, and I finished my Ph.D. study at Clemente Estable Biological Research Institute. Now, I'm looking for a postdoc position, and I talked about these challenges with Xiufang and asked her for career advice based on her experience. I want to share with you two of the answers to questions that may be useful for other young researchers like me.
Question: Should I change my research subject or move to another country?
Xiufang Xin: The most important thing is probably finding a research project/direction in which you are interested. If you want to pursue an academic career afterward, finding a supportive mentor is also important. There are always many other factors to consider: for example, location, living expenses, and family. It's up to you which factors are most important to consider. I would encourage contacting PIs as early as possible, and after going through the process (emails, interviews, negotiations, etc.), you will know where you want to go.
Question: Do you have any advice for early-career researchers?
Xiufang Xin: Try to identify important, and ideally new, scientific questions. If possible, do something different (this is the advice my previous mentor Dr. Sheng Yang gave to me, which I think is quite important, especially for early-career researchers).