This is the report from a BSPP Incoming Fellowship.
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Dr Thomas Baum visited the research group of Dr Sebastian Eves-van den Akker at the Crop Science Centre of the University of Cambridge from April through September 2022. Sebastian is a member of the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of King’s College. In order to enable this research stay at the University of Cambridge, Thomas successfully applied for a visiting fellowship of Clare Hall College. Some of the research initiatives undertaken during this visit were supported by a BSPP Fellowship.
Thomas is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, Entomology, and Microbiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University, where he has been a faculty member since 1995. His research emphases are in the area of molecular plant-parasitic nematodes (www.baumlab.org). Working in Iowa, the soybean cyst nematode (Heterodera glycines) is the most important nematode problem in the state and is the main subject of Thomas’ research: the molecular interface between plant-parasitic nematodes and their plant hosts as well as genomic studies of nematode parasitism. Thomas and Sebastian have many overlapping research interests targeting fundamental questions of host-parasite biology of different nematodes. The opportunity for collaborative work in Cambridge allowed a comprehensive exchange of research ideas and the planning of joint initiatives going forward.
In particular, this visit allowed Thomas to engage into the latest phenotyping efforts pioneered in Sebastian’s research group. Robotic image capture pipelines coupled with cutting-edge image analyses algorithms allowed Sebastian’s group to phentotype Arabidopsis mapping populations to identify QTL for key parasitism determinants. Thomas could contribute to these experiments and also is planning to expand the utility of these technologies to other nematode pathosystems in collaboration with Sebastian (Picture 1). An expansion of this phenomics project to crop plants is a key translational step in achieving relevance and impact.
TOP IMAGE (Picture 1): High-throughput phenotyping of nematode-infected plants in the greenhouse.
Plant-parasitic nematodes, like other pathogens, produce and deliver effector proteins to achieve parasitism, and both Sebastian and Thomas have a long-standing interest in exploring effector identities and function. At Iowa State University, Thomas’ group has pioneered methodologies to purify the nematode gland cells (Picture 2) that produce effectors, which are secreted through the stylet into the host plant cells. Purified gland cells can be used to determine cell-specific transcriptomes, which in turn allows the identification of nematode effectors and the regulatory mechanisms that govern effector gene expression. However, the Baum research group in Iowa cannot purify esophageal gland cells of quarantine nematode species like the potato cyst nematodes, which are of prime interest in the UK and Europe. The BSPP-supported stay in Sebastian’s group at Cambridge, allowed the application of this technology to the potato cyst nematode species Globodera rostochiensis and G. pallida. Sufficient numbers of gland cells were isolated at the CSC in Cambridge and shipped to Iowa State University, where they were processed for transcriptomic analyses. Similarly, during this research stay, additional glands of other cyst nematodes and root-knot nematodes were also purified and processed and CSC scientists received first-hand training in the requisite methodologies (Picture 3). The resultant transcriptomes will critically expand knowledge of nematode effectors and gland cell biology and will be the subject of future funding proposals.
Picture 2: Isolated gland cells of a plant-parasitic nematode in a micro-aspiration needle.
Picture 3: Tom Maier of the Baum lab offering a workshop in nematode gland cell purification.
Another prime example of synergy explored during the BSPP-supported research stay was the expansion of Sebastian’s project targeting esophageal gland regulatory mechanisms into an additional nematode species in the Baum lab at ISU. As a result of this research stay, parallel work is ongoing to advance the understanding and to clarify the broad-spectrum relevance of discoveries made in Sebastian’s group. A reciprocal visit of CSC personnel to ISU, which is planned for July 2023, will further cement the methodology exchange between the research groups and will firmly establish new techniques in a UK laboratory.
In other efforts undertaken during the BSPP-sponsored research stay, Thomas and Sebastian further advanced the development of a research proposal to be jointly funded by UKRI and NSF. This research project will build on the expertise of both research groups, and the joint research performed during the research stay will present critical preliminary data to increase funding chances.
In addition to these specific research enterprises and plans, the visit allowed extensive exchanges of ideas, plans, and visions. There are a number of novel ideas being developed as a direct result of this research stay. These ideas are basic and translational in nature and promise to be highly interactive and interesting in the future. In particular, the effector field is in need of novel, high-throughput characterisation schemes, and Sebastian and Thomas were able to develop and articulate very clear joined plans to establish such novel research avenues.
The research stay already has produced and will produce additional joint research publications. In particular, conducting comparative genomic analyses of the different nematode species studied at Cambridge and ISU has proven to be a fertile area of productive collaboration. Sebastian and Thomas discussed the topic of a co-written review article, which is now progressing and is providing an invaluable opportunity for a CSC graduate student to perform lead author functions.
On a personal level, this visit has benefited all involved by enriching experiences and cultural exchanges (Picture 4). Thomas, in particular, appreciated the opportunity to engage in the research culture in the UK and to re-engage and retool after his many years of functioning as department chair at ISU. Having had the opportunity to participate in lab meetings and research projects at the CSC in Cambridge has been a declared highlight and cherished opportunity. Also, giving a research presentation in the CSC seminar series was a treasured highlight. With Baum having been a visiting fellow of Clare Hall College at Cambridge, he now has been chosen as a life member of this college and as such is able to visit Cambridge and participate in collaborative research easily in the future. Such opportunities will present themselves and will further expand the impact of the BSPP investment into this fellowship.
Picture 4: Thomas and Sebastian enjoying a demonstration of historic farm implements at King’s College.
Thomas Baum (Iowa State University, USA) and Sebastian Eves-van den Akker (University of Cambridge, UK)