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September 27
Pierre de Wit Receives 2018 Jakob Eriksson Prize

IS-MPMI member Pierre de Wit is the 2018 recipient of the Jakob Eriksson Prize, awarded by the International Society of Plant Pathology at the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP2018). The Eriksson Prize is the highest international honor for achievement in plant pathology. Established in 1923, the prize encourages creative study of plant pathogens and the processes of disease development in plants. The prize is named for Jakob Eriksson (1848–1931), a prominent Swedish mycologist and plant pathologist who was an international leader. The prize was first awarded in 1930 and has since been awarded to 11 individuals from seven countries.

de Wit has been a pioneer in molecular plant pathology and plant–microbe interactions research. Among his many accomplishments, he was instrumental in introducing molecular biology techniques into phytopathology research. He has authored or co-authored close to 200 articles, several of which have been published in high-impact scientific journals. de Wit is also an elected member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and received the Academy Professor Prize in 2008, the Emil Christian Hansen Gold Medal Award from the Carlsberg Foundation in 1996, and the Noel Keen Award from The American Phytopathological Society in 2007.

A recording of de Wit’s lecture at ICPP2018 is available online.​

​​Pierre de Wit receives the Jakob Eriksson Prize. From left to right: Mauritz Ramstedt, Chair of the Jakob Eriksson Commission; Pierre de Wit; Ulla Gjörstrup, representative of the Swedish Consul in Boston.

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

As an MSc student at Wageningen University in the 1970s, I was intrigued by lectures on the gene-for-gene hypothesis proposed in the 1940s by Professor Oort in the Netherlands for wheat and Ustilago tritici and by Harold Flor in the U.S.A. for flax and Melampsora lini. I was fortunate to be offered a PhD position and having the freedom to choose my own research subject. I ended up studying the interaction between tomato and Cladosporium fulvum. I witnessed different episodes in the research on gene-for-gene systems. At the third ICPP in Munich in 1978—the first international congress that I attended—research was focused on elicitors and their capacity to more quickly induce phytoalexins in incompatible interactions than in compatible ones. My role models at that congress were Noël Keen, Peter Albersheim, and Joseph Kuć. Their research inspired me to carry on in times when I did not make much progress in my own research. Phytoalexins have now become popular as health-enhancing phytochemicals (such as resveratrol, glyceollin, polyphenols, etc.). I was surprised to read an article recently that the tomato phytoalexin falcarindiol, which we discovered in tomato in 1981, is also a potential drug, inhibiting human cancer cell lines. In addition to phytoalexins, we studied the role of antifungal pathogenesis-related proteins, including chitinases and β-1,3-glucanases in incompatible interactions. However, the breakthrough came when we started to study apoplastic fluids from tomato leaves infected by C. fulvum, which appeared to contain many proteinaceous elicitors—the products of fungal avirulence (Avr) genes recognized by cognate Cf receptor-like proteins in tomato. Then, very soon, the specificity question was solved. In the absence of cognate Cf-proteins, race-specific elicitors (now called “effectors”) suppress defense responses induced by nonspecific (glyco) protein fungal elicitors (now called “pathogen-associated molecular patterns,” or PAMPs), and in the presence of cognate Cf proteins, they induce a Cf-mediated defense response. With a very enthusiastic group of MSc students, PhD students, and post-docs, we have cloned many C. fulvum effectors, and for some of them, the structure and function have been elucidated. Many of the PhD students and post-docs now occupy prestigious academic positions, and I see the Jakob Eriksson Prize also as a recognition of their contributions to my research.

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

There is no guidebook that leads to success in science. Everybody stands on the shoulders of other scientists who have pioneered and partly paved roads in different research directions. There are still many fundamental and applied research questions in plant–microbe interactions that need to be addressed and solved in order to get more sustainable agriculture. I grew up on a farm and was motivated to find alternatives for the use of pesticides after reading the book Silent Spring, written by Rachel Carson in 1962. I still strongly believe in the power of disease resistance breeding in sustainable agriculture together with healthy soils and biocontrol agents when no resistance genes are available. The genomics era opens new ways to address and solve difficult research questions. However, to become successful in science, talent is not enough; ambition, curiosity, inspiration, loving your work, endurance, and not being afraid of working hard and making mistakes are equally important. However, it is also important to get sufficient time to develop a new research line after your PhD, which is not easy, as tenure positions are becoming rare in many countries.

When you were a post-doc, 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?

I was very fortunate to obtain a permanent position already during my PhD, as I was hired to assist in teaching and work on my PhD project. This gave me more time to develop my PhD project than a regular PhD student. If I had been allowed to work on my PhD project for only 4 years, I would never have discovered the race-specific elicitors of C. fulvum and their encoding genes. After my PhD, I received a Fulbright Fellowship to work 1 year in the U.S.A. in the laboratory of Professor Joseph Kuć at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, which allowed me to continue my research project and interact with researchers working on induced systemic resistance against pathogens in different crops. At that time, research on gene-for-gene interactions was a hot topic, as well as research on local and systemic resistance, and they still are. 

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