It started in a lab meeting
one day. Members of Prof.
Sheng-Yang He's lab reported inconsistent results in seemingly
replicated disease resistance assays in Arabidopsis. Digging more deeply, the
variation was traced to the use of different growth chambers that varied in
humidity control, raising the question, "Could variation in humidity
result in such dramatic differences in disease resistance?" Meanwhile, a
student interested in how light impacts plant disease resistance pivoted when
she accidently observed that small changes in temperature can alter defense
responses. (This student's project spawned a line of research in the He lab
that demonstrated the vulnerability of salicylic acid-dependent defense
responses to temperature fluctuations.) Collectively, these fortuitous findings
caused Sheng-Yang to reflect anew on the "disease triangle" he
learned about in his introductory plant pathology class. Taken to a global
scale, Sheng-Yang began to wonder about how the environment, and especially
climate change, impacts plant health and what this means for global
Sheng-Yang will have a lot to
say about climate change, plant health, and the future of agriculture during
his Keynote Address, "Plant-Pathogen Warfare under Changing Climate
at Plant Health 2021 Online on Monday, August 2.
I asked Sheng-Yang how he got
started in plant pathology. He shared that he grew up in China and witnessed
firsthand how devastating challenges like rice blast and cotton boll weevil can
be for plants, farmers, and those who rely on healthy crops. In graduate
school, he studied plant pathology at Cornell University. He has built a
successful and celebrated career working on Arabidopsis, its interactions with
pathogens (especially bacterial pathogens), and molecular mechanisms in both
plant and pathogen. However, he has never forgotten his agricultural roots or
the importance of his research for solving plant health problems.
Now at Duke University,
Sheng-Yang and his lab group are exploring how environmental variation—in
humidity and temperature, as well as in nutrition and CO2 levels—impacts
plant health, plant defense responses, and pathogen biology. In an increasingly
volatile global environment, this is a field ripe for research. Sheng-Yang
indicates that all we have learned as a scientific community in recent decades
about both host and pathogen means we can now tackle environmental variation,
the third side of the disease triangle, with renewed research vigor.
I asked Sheng-Yang for his
advice for those just starting out in plant pathology. He indicated that one of
the strengths of our discipline is the diverse perspectives it brings. Given
his fortuitous foray into his current line of research, it should be no
surprise that he encourages students and early-career professionals to focus on
the big picture and to think about how our research impacts the real world.
Sheng-Yang offered, "Plant pathology is a fascinating field. Once people
begin to see the breadth and depth of the field, they are excited," and he
sees a future for our discipline that intersects with other fields of study,
from chemistry to engineering to informatics.
So, what can we expect from
Sheng-Yang's Keynote Address? It's going to be exciting! We will hear about
some recent and ongoing research from his program. We will be challenged to
think about our own research and how it fits into the
future of agriculture; how genome editing can be leveraged for plant
health; the importance of crop wild relatives to sustainable agriculture; and
new strategies for disease management. You won't want to miss this one! Tune in
on Monday, August 2, for Prof. Sheng-Yang He's Plant Health 2021 Keynote
Address, "Plant-Pathogen Warfare under Changing Climate Conditions."
Learn more about Sheng-Yang He and other Keynote and Plenary presenters.