Dec 19
2023​ - ISSUE 4
Issue 4 • 2023
Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions is seeking applicants for two-year "assistant feature editor" positions to be filled by postdoctoral scientists. Assistant feature editors have the opportunity to be part of a journal editorial team, see the inner workings of the MPMI journal, develop a unique science communication project, and interact with the diverse MPMI scientific community.
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Also in this issue...
Pritha Kundu, postdoctoral fellow, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, interviewed IS-MPMI President Adam Bogdanove, professor, Department of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology, Cornell University, about his research and career.
Siva Sankari, assistant investigator, Stowers Institute, and MPMI assistant feature editor, interviewed Cara Haney, associate professor, University of Pittsburgh, and 2023 IS-MPMI Early Career Achievement Award winner, about her research.
Eilyn Mena, scientist, Clemente Estable Biological Research Institute of Montevideo, interviewed Xiufang Xin, research group leader, Center for Excellence in Molecular Plant Sciences/Institute of Plant Physiology and Ecology, and IS-MPMI Early Career Achievement Award winner, about her work and experience in plant–pathogen interactions.
Micro… Greens? What Is Microgreens?
Dr. Tiff Mak, postdoctoral researcher, NNF Center for Biosustainability at DTU, and Dr. Dominique Holtappels, postdoctoral researcher, University of California, Berkeley, are the new hosts of the Microgreens podcast! Learn about Microgreens and what Mak and Holtappels have planned for upcoming episodes.
Conception of a Quiz-Based Gameshow, "Who Wants to Be an (MPMI)llionaire?," at the 2023 IS-MPMI Congress
The quiz-based gameshow "Who wants to be an (MPMI)llionaire" held at the 2023 IS-MPMI Congress was a huge success. Learn about how it originated and was organized by Meenu Singla, postdoctoral associate, Innes lab, University of Indiana.
InterConnections: Get to Know Mohamed Hafez
Learn about Mohamed Hafez, coauthor of the research paper "Evolution of the ToxB Gene in Pyrenophora tritici-repentis and Related Species" recently published in MPMI, and the work that has provided novel insights into ToxB, its homologs, and its evolution.
Research Highlight: Evolution of the ToxB Gene in Pyrenophora tritici-repentis and Related Species
Reem Aboukhaddour, Cereal Pathology Lab, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Lethbridge, AB, discusses the pivotal question of how Pyrenophora tritici-repentis, the cause of tan spot of wheat, became pathogenic and how the inquiry aligns with the ongoing exploration of the emergence of necrotrophic diseases.
What Does It Mean to Practice Inclusion in Science?
In a new episode of Microgreens, Dr. Tiff Mak and Dr. Dominique Holtappels interview Dr. Amie Fornah Sankoh, who shares her journey to becoming the first deaf, black woman to receive a doctorate in a STEM discipline in the United States.
Explore three new MPMI Virtual Seminars presented by Hasna Boubakri, Hyelim Jeon and Cécile Segonzac, and Sajjan Grover.
Discover the latest MPMI Editor's Picks by Zhide Tang and colleagues on the role of O-antigen in rhizobium–legume symbiosis and by Eeva Marttinen and colleagues, who screened part of the Physcomitrium patens mutant collection to elucidate the pathway of peroxidase activity in response to chitosan treatment.

Dec 18
Help Promote the Science of MPMI Journal!

Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions is seeking postdoctoral volunteers to fill "assistant feature editor" positions for a duration of two years. The application submission deadline is February 14, 2024.

MPMI is looking for creative, innovative communicators who are eager to volunteer their time to engage with both the scientific and nonscientific communities in accessible ways. As an assistant feature editor, you will be part of a journal editorial team, see the inner workings of the MPMI journal, develop a unique science communication project highlighting your talents, and interact with the diverse MPMI scientific community.

These positions, suitable for highly engaged postdoctoral fellows who would like to gain experience and behind-the-scenes knowledge of publishing in MPMI, involve development of multimedia (written, audio, video, etc.) communications within your areas of interest and mentorship in areas outside of your current lab environment. We anticipate a commitment of approximately 10–15 h/month, realizing that there will be some variability each month depending on the projects the assistant feature editor chooses.

MPMI values the diversity of our community and is seeking assistant feature editors who will contribute to equity and inclusion through their projects. A key role of assistant feature editors is amplifying the impact of our research publications through multimedia content creation, targeting different audiences in an inclusive way.

Assistant feature editors create their own niche based on their interests, skills, and ideas in diverse areas of nonscientific and scientific community engagement, including, but not limited to

  • ​Writing online research summaries
  • Highlighting articles on X (formerly Twitter) or other social media platforms
  • Interviewing authors and working with our staff amplification specialist to write news stories and press releases for a nonscientific audience
  • Writing MPMI commentaries highlighting articles published in MPMI
  • Being mentored by MPMI senior editors in manuscript review

New assistant feature editors will likely contribute to current projects and tasks but are also encouraged to suggest and initiate novel ways to promote MPMI and its content.

Assistant feature editors work closely with the editor-in-chief and associate editor-in-chief, as well as with other senior editors and members of the journal marketing staff. These interactions, as well as interactions with authors and the greater community, provide additional opportunities for networking with scientists beyond the connections formed based on their research.

To apply, provide the following to MPMI Editor-in-Chief Tim Friesen:

  • One-page cover letter outlining your research focus area and current position; expertise; and interest in this position, including the following areas as applicable to you:
    • Experience with social media, writing, and other forms of communication
    • Experience working to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion within or outside the scientific community
    • Engagement with aspects of science beyond your own research
    • Participation in, or leadership of, communication projects for a nonscientific audience (describe the target audience and strategy for engagement)
  • ​Current CV
  • Contact details for two professional references
  • A short, nontechnical communication sample based on any recent publication from the MPMI journal

Applications are due by February 14, 2024, and will be reviewed on a rolling basis until all positions are filled. Apply today!

Dec 18
MPMI InterView with Prof. Adam Bogdanove

Pritha Kundu​

Pritha Kundu is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), USA, with Prof. Joe Louis, investigating the molecular intricacies mediating crop defense physiology against a wide range of pests, with particular interest in the monolignol biosynthetic pathway. She pursued her Ph.D. degree from the Indian Institute for Science, Education and Research (IISER-Kolkata) in wheat fungal pathogenesis, deciphering the phytohormonal crosstalk and the regulatory transcription factors providing resistance. Later, she moved on to study insect calcium signaling and the role of different calcium nucleotide gated channels (CNGCs) and their interaction with the eATP receptor molecule, DORN1 in Arabidopsis–Spodoptera litura herbivory with Dr. Jyothilakshmi Vadassery at the National Institute of Plant Genome Research (NIPGR), New Delhi, India. Her major interest lies in deciphering the key components of the plant defense system that modulates its growth-defense trade off against pests and pathogens.

Adam Bogdanove is presently a professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology at Cornell University, with a major research focus on understanding the TAL effectors and their targets in diseases of rice and other crop plants caused by Xanthomonas spp. TAL effectors are those transcription factors that are injected by the bacterium into the host cell, which in resistant host varieties target genes that block disease progression. Bogdanove was one of the discoverers of the modular mechanism by which the TAL effectors recognize specific DNA sequences (the others being co-author Matthew Moscou and, in a simultaneous publication, a group led by Jens Boch and Sebastien Schornack in Ulla Bonas’ lab at the time). Bogdanove’s lab also established computational models to identify key TAL effector binding sites in complex plant genomes. With more than 62 publications and 21,000 citations, Bogdanove also helped pioneer the use of TAL effectors as customizable DNA-targeting tools for applications like targeted gene regulation and genome editing.

It was my pleasure to host an interview with Prof. Bogdanove, which is detailed below, and I want to thank MPMI for this exclusive opportunity.

My interest in Prof. Bogdanove's long journey from Yale to Japan—he was an English instructor there—to Purdue, Iowa, and now Cornell prompted me to ask him whether it was a strategic move or happened one move after another. Bogdanove remembered his years in Japan as very formative, and he decided then to start his work on a long-standing interest in environmental protection and a newfound interest in agriculture and biotechnology and sort of merge the two in the late 1980s. At this inflection point in a field like plant pathology, plant breeding was interested in generating innovations that would ultimately reduce our dependence on agrochemicals. The intensive, but limited, agricultural facilities (limited land), triggered in him the interest to apply for graduate school at Cornell University. When questioned about the struggles of life as a Ph.D. student, he mentioned that his rotation across three amazing labs at Cornell helped him immensely in choosing his Ph.D. lab, which had successfully purified the first microbial elicitor for hypersensitive reaction. He also mentioned that it was quite challenging to raise his three kids during graduate school but that the process was made smooth by his wife. ​He was particularly driven by some exciting ideas for research that kept him moving forward.

When asked about his entry into the field of TAL effectors and being one of the pioneers, he remembered the tremendous influence rice pathologist and friend Jan Leach had, the then recently published fully sequenced rice genome, and his strong interest in studying tissue specificity in plant–pathogen interactions. He decided to study the interactions of rice with the two pathovars (vascular and nonvascular)​ of X. oryzae—pv. oryzae and pv. oryzicola—infecting different plant tissues. His scientific interest revolved around two questions:

  • What determines tissue trophism for bacterial pathogens and plants?
  • Does the plant respond differently to these two pathovars?

He further developed an inoculation method for both pathovars and examined the differences that these pathovars had on reprogramming the plant transcriptome. The challenge was to connect the bacterial effectors to their targets, which led him to study the comparative genomics on the pathogen side and specifically to the detailed study of the largest effector family found in Xanthomonas spp., the AvrBs3/PthA or TAL (transcription activator-like) family. He then moved on to study individual TAL effectors targeting individual host genes, which ultimately led to the mechanism for TAL effector binding specificity. At a later stage, Bogdanove collaborated with Dan Voytas and others to develop TAL effector-based targeted nucleases for genome editing.

Bogdanove also suggested that being mindful and intentional helps in developing a research group with a strong foundation of research interests that keeps you moving. "Science is a social enterprise"; thus, building a strong network to gain information and facilitate collaborations is definitely helpful in the long run. When questioned about the struggles he faced while running his lab, he emphasized the importance of giving the freedom to young enthusiasts to be intellectual drivers who share the same interests and getting the lab funded. "Research can be stressful at times"; thus, he mentioned the acute importance of providing a healthy lab environment. Drive, curiosity, and intellectual leadership are essential components in each member that determine the success of an enterprise. An important challenge he faced was retraction of an article from his group, and he stressed the imperative to correct the literature openly and the importance of eliminating any stigma related to it.

When questioned about the critical factors in running a lab successfully, he emphasized the importance of creating a space in which people feel free to be critical of one another. Valuing one another's views is another important component that determines team success—the idea that everyone must critically look through the data and then give critical feedback. "There is an increased tendency to get medals for everyone," which he suggests is a generational issue and that we should be critical of our data and maintain a balance. He also stressed that celebrating lab successes and milestones together help you develop as a group.

When asked about work–life balance, he mentioned that's been very easy for him. He mentioned his family to be his most important hobby, besides gardening and hiking. He loves to spend quality time with his family. Presently, he is basking in the happiness of having his first 6-week-old grandchild.

When asked about the key advice he has for the scientific community, he suggested that we follow our dreams. To do something that wakes you up in the morning and does not let you sleep at night ("sometimes"). Something that interests you. Science is not a profession to pursue if you have no passion for it. Try to engage with the community and seek out help and be open with the science that you perform. Scientists all over the world are advocating for open science, which is essential for the development of the global scientific community. We are working together in this world to pull each other up, as he mentioned that our mentors and mentees should be our examples. He suggested all early-career researchers be an example for their mentees.

Altogether, it was a wonderful experience to interview Dr. Bogdanove, the new IS-MPMI president and be enlightened by his ideas for working together in a collaborative environment and being open with our science and scientific community as a whole.

Dec 18
InterView with Cara Haney

Siva Sankari

Siva Sankari is a new assistant investigator at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research. Her research focuses on understanding the mechanism of action of plant peptides on symbiotic bacteria. She is an assistant feature editor for the MPMI journal.

Cara Haney is a recipient of the 2023 IS-MPMI Early Career Achievement Award. Haney is an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, PA. After a very successful journey with her lab at the University of British Columbia, she recently moved her lab to Pitt, which is in her hometown. Her lab works on understanding the genetic factors that regulate the functional outcome of plant–microbe interactions.

I was very excited to interview Cara, mainly because I love her research questions. These were questions that I wondered about when I started working with symbiosis. What determines whether a symbiotic microbe will become a pathogen, mutualist, or commensal? How does a host plant distinguish between beneficial and pathogenic bacteria? Being a new PI myself, I was also interested in knowing more about the nitty gritty things one should know as an early-career scientist. Our Zoom call was more like a fireside chat rather than a formal interview. Following are some important excerpts from our chat.

I was very curious about why she was interested in her research questions and what led her to start asking these questions in her lab. Cara said,

I first developed an interest in plant–microbe interactions as an undergraduate. I was a plant science major, and my academic advisor suggested I take Plant Pathology, which included a lab component. Isolating microbes from plant tissues opened up an entire world for me. After working in a plant pathology research lab, I then did my Ph.D. on rhizobia–legume symbiosis. Over time, I became more and more fascinated with the microbes that just were there—not the devastating pathogens and not the closely co-evolved mutualists. I was fixated on the idea that these microbiota might hold some clues to why pathogens are pathogens and how mutualists first evolved. During my postdoc, I wanted to develop a system that would let me start to ask questions about the origins of symbiosis. As a postdoc in Fred Ausubel's lab, I started working on Arabidopsis–Pseudomonas as a model microbiome system, which became the model system in my own lab. This system has let us answer questions about bacterial lifestyle transitions and how plants distinguish closely related pathogens and mutualists.

I asked her what an early-career scientist should focus on to be successful in their field. She replied,

I don't think there is just one way to be successful in science, and I think a lot of what academia needs is to rethink and broaden our ideas around metrics of success. I would advise early-career scientists to first and foremost define their own metrics of success, as there are a lot of ways to make meaningful and impactful contributions to science. For me, success is mentoring students and postdocs to reach their self-defined career goals and generating data for field-specific publications that advance scientific knowledge.

When asked what would be her advice for postdocs in particular, Cara replied,

It's essential to find a supervisor who is supportive of your personal career goals and who will be a champion for you. I also think postdoctoral positions should be targeted training for a specific end goal; many jobs don't require a postdoc, or just require a short postdoc, and so I always ask trainees what they want out of their training. Finally, I also think many postdocs with goals of securing a faculty position spend too much time in pursuit of a single high-impact paper and forego developing the depth of an independent research program. I think the latter is much more important for long-term success in academia.

There are numerous commitments that come with being a faculty member, especially in the first few years of starting a lab. I asked how she does it all! She said,

An amazing thing about running a research lab is that you're now not alone in answering questions that are of interest to you. But at the same time, it means a lot of people are depending on you to advance their career and research goals. l try and prioritize the things that are rate limiting for people in my lab—whether it is discussing an experiment, sending an email to connect them to a key resource, or editing a manuscript draft. I'm also not someone who is willing to work around the clock, so I allot specific amounts of time for tasks and do what I can in the time I have to give. Sometimes the result is not to the standard I wish it was, but I have learned to accept 'good enough' in many areas of my job. Finally, I've learned to say no. I recently got advice that for everything I say yes to, I need to drop something else. That has been helpful in making sure I can reserve time for the parts of my job I really enjoy, like the science itself and mentorship.

When asked if she faces any additional challenges being a woman in science, Cara replied very calmly,

I have certainly experienced challenges ranging from tokenism to overt sexism. This sometimes results in the rather contradictory internal narrative where I simultaneously feel like I need to be better than my male counterparts to be taken seriously, and at the same time like I've only gotten to where I am because of my gender. Now ,I prioritize academic spaces, interactions, and collaborations where I feel valued for what I bring. And times where I feel I'm being included just because I'm a woman, I remind myself that it doesn't mean I don't belong.

I thoroughly enjoyed this interview. I have followed Cara's scientific work, yet it was a delight to know her as a person. This interview also led to me borrowing some bacterial strains from Cara, which she happily shared. I hope early-career readers take home a few key points from this interview.​

Dec 18
MPMI InterView with Xiufang Xin

Eilyn Mena

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).​

Dec 18
Micro… Greens? What Is Microgreens?

Microgreens is the official podcast of the MPMI journal and was launched by Dr. Raka Mitra in 2019: the first episode was released shortly after the IS-MPMI Congress in Glasgow, Scotland, with support from Dr. Jeanne Harris. Soon after, Raka tag-teamed with Dr. Tess Deyet and later with us(!): Dr. Tiff Mak and Dr. Dominique Holtappels. Now, Tiff and Dominique are taking over hosting Microgreens from Raka. We have some big shoes to fill, but we are so excited to collaborate and bring you great episodes about plants, microbes, and the people who study them…because, let's be honest, aren't we all bored with those daily news podcasts? And, wouldn't we rather listen to all the amazing and exciting stories of the research and researchers in our field?

Yes, totally! And, what kind of stories will you tell?

Aha! Great question! During the IS-MPMI Congress in Glasgow, a survey was conducted to figure out what the biggest questions were in the field, resulting in the "Top 10 Unanswered Questions of MPMI." This list was exactly what Microgreens was all about at the beginning: interviewing prominent researchers in the field about their take on the top 10 unanswered questions. In the first episode, Raka interviewed Dr. Jeff Dangle, for example, to learn more about how the plant microbiome influences the plant immune system. On another episode, we hosted a conversation with Dr. Ralph Panstruga and Dr. Matthew Moscou about their review paper on nonhost resistance in plants. In one of our more recent episodes, we interviewed Dr. Cara Haney and Dr. David Thoms about how plants recognize friend from foe. We've also released episodes on other questions, like the one in which Deyet talked with Dr. Jennifer Lewis about the devastating effects of citrus greening.

That sounds rather complex…Who is your target audience?

Our target audience is primarily graduate students, postdocs, professors, and other researchers in the field. In our newest episode, for example, we talked with Dr. Tessa Burch-Smith about the journey of a manuscript after it is submitted to a journal. By telling this story, we want to give early-career researchers a glimpse of what happens within the MPMI journal, and we think our episode is a great resource for graduate students who are submitting their first manuscript. However, we make our episodes in such a way that undergraduate students interested in plants and their microbes also can follow the science. We cast a wide net because we want to inform people as much as we can on recent developments in the field, so anyone interested in plants and microbes can listen to Microgreens and get the most recent updates from the field!

You also mentioned that Microgreens tells the stories behind the scenes.

Yes, totally! We're not only fascinated by the amazing research in the field and all the progress that is being made to understand the complexity of plants and their microbes, but we also want to highlight the people who study these interactions. We all have our own journeys in science, and we all have our own stories to tell. At Microgreens, we want to give researchers a platform to amplify their voice and inspire the next generation of researchers! This is also why we put great efforts into highlighting the diversity in MPMI research and share these stories. In one of our earlier episodes, Deyet interviewed Dr. Jennifer Lewis about her take on promoting diversity, equity, and inclusivity in her lab and more broadly, in her approach to science. We believe it is so important to highlight these efforts to inspire young people, but also for the future of MPMI.

What do you have planned for us in the next months?

Well, we are not going to spoil too much…but in our next episodes, we have some amazing stories from researchers sharing their inspiring journeys in science and how their perseverance got them to the stage they are at now. And, we're going to talk about some exciting new research along the way, so stay tuned for the next episode of Microgreens and, while you wait, check out previous Microgreens podcasts!​

Dr. Dominique Holtappels is a bioscience engineer and postdoctoral researcher working with Prof. Britt Koskella at the University of California, Berkeley. Here, he studies the interaction of bacteriophages and their host in the pear phyllosphere, the drivers of phage host range, and how the evolutionary pressure posed by phages steers bacterium–plant interactions.

Dr. Tiff Mak is a postdoctoral researcher working at the intersection of microbial ecology, fermentation, and integrated food systems. They are interested in living systems and the relationality of beings, from the scale of the microbial to the planetary, and see ecology as a way to connect and share stories around community and plurality. They are currently based at the NNF Center for Biosustainability at DTU in Denmark, cocreating regenerative and more equitable food system futures alongside microbes.

Dec 18
Conception of a Quiz-Based Gameshow, "Who Wants to Be an (MPMI)llionaire?," at the 2023 IS-MPMI Congress

Meenu Singla

In the fall of 2022, the IS-MPMI Board of Directors invited proposals for open-format sessions that would promote audience engagement with the science being presented at the 2023 IS-MPMI Congress in Providence, Rhode Island. This became a topic of discussion during a lab hike in October 2022. Several innovative ways to break the mold of traditional PowerPoint presentations were floated. From this discussion, the idea of conducting a quiz-based gameshow generated the most excitement. Exactly how this could be executed in the context of the IS-MPMI Congress was refined over the subsequent weeks. As the name implies, "Who Wants to Be an (MPMI)llionaire?" is a quiz-based gameshow modeled after the popular TV show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" (I grew up watching this show on TV, and it was one of my personal favorites). We decided to focus the quizzes on MPMI knowledge gleaned from attending all of the plenary sessions during this congress, with a goal of promoting attendance, especially by Ph.D. students, postdocs, and early-career researchers.

After this concept struck a chord within the group, we saw the potential to adapt it to suit the theme of the congress, Protecting Our Planet Through Plant–Microbe Research. However, one of the key challenges in introducing this session was to ensure that it remained relevant to the congress' central theme, which meant that the quiz questions must not only be entertaining, but also intellectually stimulating, challenging participants' knowledge of plant–microbe interactions. To achieve this, we asked the plenary speakers to provide relevant questions based on their latest findings to be presented at the congress. We really appreciate the help provided by the speakers, nearly all of whom embraced our vision and provided a fun set of multiple-choice questions covering various aspects of their work, including their latest research, historical breakthroughs, and intriguing facts. Alongside this, we kept refining the logistics of our gameshow format, which required testing multiple platforms for conducting live quizzes with the audience.

Once the concept was affirmed, the IS-MPMI organizing committee sought to garner support and sponsorship from relevant stakeholders. This session was generously funded by our industry sponsor Corteva Agriscience, which helped cover the costs of organizing the event and offered attractive prizes for the winners. By involving industry sponsors, the committee strengthened the bond between the scientific community and industry, further enriching the congress experience for all participants. The representatives from Corteva Agriscience, Dr. Rao Uppalapatti and Dr. Ryan Kessens, were invited to hand out the awards to the finalists.

The top eight finalists after the two online quiz rounds were Samuel Eastman (Princeton University), Mauricio Contreras (The Sainsbury Laboratory), Unnati Sonawala (University of Cambridge), Jake Schumacher (North Dakota State University), Caroline Stone (John Innes Centre), Miette Hennessy (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Kelsey Wood (UC Davis), and Emma Turley (John Innes Centre). This final group of candidates then participated in the in-person championship round at the conclusion of the congress, which had remarkable attendance and audience engagement.

Here are a few comments from our finalists:

It was an honor to participate in the final round of (MPMI)llionaire! This event was one of the most exciting parts of this year's congress!
– Samuel Eastman, Postdoctoral Researcher, Conway Group, Princeton University, USA

As a second-year Ph.D. student from the UK, I was lucky enough to attend my first IS-MPMI congress in 2023. My research is currently focused on understanding fungal manipulation of plant cell-to-cell communication via plasmodesmata—the microscopic channels that directly connect adjacent cells to establish the symplast. At the congress, I was keen to hear about the latest developments in plant–microbe research, especially regarding effector protein structure/function and cell biology of infection. The plenary talks certainly did not disappoint, and the topics covered were remarkably diverse. Incorporation of the (MPMI)llionaire gameshow gave me additional motivation to take note of both the key messages and specific details of the presentations. Although I only narrowly scraped into the top eight after the second round of the quiz, I enjoyed participating in the final in-person championship and look forward to similar events at congresses in future.
– Emma Turley, John Innes Centre, UK

Mauricio Contreras (in the center of the picture) posing with his friends after winning the 2023 "Who Wants to Be an (MPMI)llionaire?" contest.

The 2023 winner of "Who Wants to Be an (MPMI)llionaire?", Mauricio Contreras, is a final year Ph.D. student with Prof. Sophien Kamoun at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, UK. He is currently studying plant NLR immune receptors, how they activate, and how they are inhibited by plant pathogens. Regarding the gameshow, he said,

It was truly a lot of fun to participate! Never thought I would make it as far as I did! I thought it was a fantastic idea. It motivated everyone to pay close attention to all the plenaries and was a good way to get ECRs some exposure in the MPMI community, in a fun way. It would be a great idea to keep doing this contest in future editions of the congress! Hope it becomes an IS-MPMI tradition! A good dose of healthy competition is nice to spice things up!

Jiameng Lan, our audience winner of the 2023 "Who Wants to Be an (MPMI)llionaire?" contest!​

Audience participation was key to this event, and we witnessed many emotions during this session that were worth capturing. Jiameng Lan, a graduate student from the group of Prof. Zhang at the University of British Columbia, was our audience winner and received an honorary award at the end of the session.

Last but not least, organizing this session was absolutely fun, but at the same time, it provided me with the opportunity to learn about the latest scientific endeavors of prominent researchers in the field and interact with them closely. I also understood the diligent complexities of organizing a congress involving a large number of participants and that time is a crucial factor. One of the biggest fears that I had to overcome while conducting this session was public speaking; however, with the encouragement I received from my mentor, Prof. Roger Innes, and lab friends, I was able to do it with utmost confidence. I wish to continue contributing to the MPMI community in different ways, and with this, I am happy to do knowledge transfer to interested individuals who wish to conduct this session in future meetings. "I hope that what began as a simple concept to engage participants in a lighthearted competition will bloom into a cherished tradition, enriching the congress experience for all attendees in future meetings."

Kudos to the 2023 (MPMI)llionaire organizing teamLucia Borniego, Brian Rutter, Megha Sampangiramaiah, Suchismita Ghosh, Alexandra Margets, Benjamin Koch, Tyler Frailie, and Youhuang Xiang!

I am a postdoctoral research associate in the lab of Prof. Roger Innes at Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. My current research focus is to characterize and elucidate the role of extracellular RNAs and proteins in the context of plant–microbe interactions. I am deeply passionate about science communication and enjoy organizing fun and engaging activities, such as "Who Wants to Be an (MPMI)llionaire?".

Dec 18
InterConnections: Get to Know Mohamed Hafez

Evolution of the ToxB Gene in Pyrenophora tritici-repentis and Related Species

Name: Mohamed Hafez

Current Position: Research Biologist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Education: B.S. and M.S. degrees in microbiology, Suez Canal University, Egypt; Ph.D. degree in microbiology, University of Manitoba, Canada

Nonscientific Interests: Photography and chess

Brief Bio: Earlier my career, I conducted research in the field of molecular biology and fungal genetics as a Ph.D. student in Dr. Georg Hausner's lab (Department of Microbiology, University of Manitoba, Canada), then as a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Franz Lang's group (Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine, University of Montreal, Canada). In Dr. Hausner's lab, my work aimed to understand the evolutionary dynamics of mobile introns and their encoded open reading frames (such as DNA-cutting meganucleases). An important finding from my Ph.D. project was the characterization of two novel DNA-cutting enzymes (i.e., I-OmiI and I-OmiII) with applications in genome editing. In Dr. Lang's lab, my research was part of a large-scale project titled “GenoRem," the goal of which was to improve bioremediation of polluted soils through environmental genomics. My research in GenoRem led to one of the biggest achievements in my career, which was the discovery and characterization of a novel RNA family called mitochondrial transfer-messenger RNA (mt-tmRNA) encoded within the mitochondrial genomes of many Oomycetes. My second postdoctoral position in Dr. Fouad Daayf's lab (Plant Science Department, University of Manitoba, Canada) introduced me to the basics of plant pathology by being involved in a project to investigate the cross-pathogenicity of some Fusarium spp. between cereal and pulse crops in Manitoba (a prairie region of Canada producing mainly cereals and pulses). During this project, we developed the first specific molecular marker for the important Fusarium head blight pathogen F. graminearum sensu stricto and reported an emerging disease, soybean root rot caused by F. cerealis. Currently, I am working as a research biologist in Dr. Reem Aboukhaddour's lab (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Lethbridge Research and Development Centre). In Dr. Aboukhaddour's lab (Cereal Pathology), my research is centered on investigating plant pathogens associated with cereal crops in western Canada (and worldwide through international collaboration), as well as studying plant–microbe interactions and how disease-causing microorganisms (mainly fungi) sustain themselves within their hosts. Moreover, we investigate virulence gene diversity and its impact on pathogenicity, as well as the discovery and biochemical characterization of novel effectors encoded by necrotrophic fungal plant pathogens. In addition to research experience, I have built substantial teaching and supervision experience. I have taught a variety of biology, microbiology, and molecular biology courses during my work as a lecturer at Suez University (Egypt) and as a session instructor with the Department of Microbiology, University of Manitoba (Canada). I also have supervised many masters and Ph.D. students in Egyptian and Canadian universities.

In Dr. Aboukhaddour's lab, I combine my long experience in microbiology, molecular biology, plant pathology, and bioinformatics to answer many important research questions regarding the diversity and evolution of effector-encoding genes. We have designed molecular tools to detect and characterize the neglected ToxB gene (encoding chlorosis-inducing effector), and its homolog (toxb) in the tan spot pathogen Pyrenophora tritici-repentis and related species. We have explored ToxB/toxb in a large number of P. tritici-repentis isolates that represent all known pathotypes from different geographic regions and have identified the presence of toxb homologs in P. teres (the barley pathogen) and many other plant fungal pathogens for the first time. This work has provided novel insights into ToxB, its homologs, and its evolution via duplication or loss of function and the variation in its upstream regulatory sequences in various isolates or species, which add significant value to the effector research community.

I hope to continue my research on understanding the molecular basis underlying the interactions between necrotrophic fungal pathogens and their host crops. This can help us to develop long-term effective management options for necrotrophs infecting economically important cereal crops.

Learn more about the research project in "Research Highlight: Evolution of the ToxB Gene in Pyrenophora tritici-repentis and Related Species​" by Reem Aboukhaddour. ​

Dec 18
Research Highlight: Evolution of the ToxB gene in Pyrenophora tritici-repentis and related species
​Reem Aboukhaddour, Cereal Pathology Lab, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Lethbridge, AB, Canada​

Overall Background

Across the expansive Canadian prairies, wheat can stretch as far as the eye can see, and during the growing season, its green leaves are a food source to several foliar-infecting pathogens. Among these pathogens is the fungus Pyrenophora tritici-repentis, which causes tan spot of wheat, a destructive foliar disease that emerged as a specialized necrotroph about 50 years ago. Since its emergence as a wheat pathogen, it has caused significant losses in North America, Australia, and other parts of the world. Today, tan spot is still one of the most destructive foliar diseases of wheat, and it is mainly managed by fungicides applications.

Why This Work and How It Came to Be

The question of how this fungus became a pathogen has been a pivotal inquiry among the research community, including my team, and aligns well with the ongoing exploration of the emergence of necrotrophic diseases. Since 2016, my lab has concentrated on wheat diseases, resulting in this paper as part of our overall studies. I have actively engaged with inquiries from students and scientists globally, providing guidance on accurately identifying the tan spot fungus and troubleshooting various aspects of working with the system. Some interactions were driven by my interest in tracing the pathogen's identification as a wheat pathogen in Japan in 1928, seeking old isolates, well characterized at the University of Manitoba and collected by my late Ph.D. supervisor, Dr. Lamari, who dedicated his research to establishing the tan spot-wheat interaction as a model system. These isolates, collected along the silk road, hold significant value for comparative genomic studies to trace the pathogen's evolution. Chance encounters with collaborators at conferences and meetings have further contributed to the establishment of a collaborative network spanning North and South America, North Africa, Europe, Japan, and Australia.

What began as a simple quest to single-spore the pathogen and conduct its proper characterization, though laborious and time-consuming, resulted in a substantial collection of isolates from diverse global locations and hosts and covering an interesting time scale. The increasing affordability of full genome sequencing, coupled with COVID-19 restrictions, prompted a shift in focus. Collaborating with experts, including Dr. Megan McDonald from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, we released the pathogen's pangenome, chromosomal structural organization, and the reorganization of its effector-encoding genes and surrounding regions (Gourlie et al., 2022). Simultaneously, we explored the allelic diversity of effector-encoding genes in a broader collection of wheat leaf-spotting pathogens, with a specific emphasis on the ToxA gene, a key virulence determinant in North America and Australia (Aboukhaddour et al., 2023). Our research extended beyond the tan spot pathogen to encompass related species.

Simultaneously, our investigation of P. tritici-repentis virulence in North Africa (Kamel et al., 2019) revealed a prevalent ToxB effector in the pathogen populations. The ToxB gene, relatively understudied due to limited access in North American and Australian labs, presented an intriguing aspect for exploring virulence evolution in the fungal genome given its multicopy nature. Tan spot, increasingly concerning in North Africa and neighboring regions where ToxB is widespread, contrasts with North America, where ToxB is nearly absent; instead, a nonfunctional homolog prevails in certain pathogen races infecting durum wheat or recovered from grasses. A few years ago, we accidentally discovered that ToxB-producing isolates induce mild chlorosis in specific barley genotypes. Identifying a dominant single locus responsible for conferring sensitivity to ToxB-producing isolates in barley, a secondary host for the pathogen, added an interest to explore further the ToxB evolution (Aboukhaddour and Strelkov, 2016; Wei et al, 2020).

Considering these findings, the research highlighted here by Hafez et al. delves into the diversity and evolution of ToxB in tan spot pathogens and related species. This work complements our broader investigation into the evolutionary puzzle of tan spot virulence, shedding light on the sudden emergence of this wheat pathogen. The paper provides the research community with a more comprehensive understanding of the diversity of the ToxB gene and its homologs and access to valuable information from a large global collection that would otherwise be challenging to obtain. Ongoing research, in collaboration with Dr. McDonald, aims to decipher the mechanism of virulence gene duplications in the fungal genome. Armed with a wealth of well-studied isolates and continually expanding resources, this endeavor feels like a generational effort booming into an international collaboration to decode the emergence of this wheat pathogen.

Learn more about Mohamed Hafez in his InterConnections article​​.

Dec 15
What Does It Mean to Practice Inclusion in Science?

I realized the world is mine. I can do whatever I want. But I still experience intimidation and fear being in a scientific field because communication is not accessible in that context. And so, I was deciding whether I should pursue my education in biochemistry or in another field, and someone said to me, 'Go forth with your education in whatever field you want.'

—Dr. Amie Fornah Sankoh

In a new episode of Microgreens, the MPMI journal podcast, Dr. Tiff Mak and Dr. Dominique Holtappels interview Dr. Amie Fornah Sankoh, who highlights the importance of mentorship and disability justice in science. Amie shares her journey to becoming the first deaf, black woman to receive a doctorate in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) discipline in the United States.

A full transcript to the audio recording of the interview can be found here. A video version of the recording will be released later for audiences to experience and engage with Amie through sign language.​

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