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Jun 14
Plant Health 2021 Online Preview: A Conversation with Keynote Speaker Professor Sheng-Yang He
Jim Bradeen, APS Internal Communications Officer

01He_photo.jpgIt 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 agriculture.

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 Conditions," 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 r​esearch 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.

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