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22nd – 25th August 2022
After not travelling out of the UK for a few years due to Covid-19, I was finally given the opportunity to venture out for an international conference for the 21st Oomycete Molecular Genetics Network (OMGN) conference. Considering my PhD started in 2020 I was feeling deprived of in-person opportunities to network with the wider international community. It was exciting to meet some of the very hardworking and dedicated scientists behind papers I had read, in a conference that could not have been more relevant to my project in which one key aspect of my PhD project is to develop a molecular tool for genotyping the UK population of an oomycete pathogen (Bremia lactucae).
When researching it can be incredibly easy to focus solely on your project, this conference was beneficial in challenging this, by presenting a range of perspectives on different oomycete pathogens. From the small-scale, through research into the pressure of germ tube penetration of host plant walls and how the cytoskeletal features can aid in infection (Jochem Bronkhorst, ‘An actin mechanostat ensures hyphal tip sharpness in Phytophthora infestans to achieve host penetration’); to country-wide context like the dangers of the plant trade in importing pathogens and why border monitoring of plant imports can be vital in protecting ecosystems from detrimental pathogens (Martin Pettersson,’Phytophthora detected in plants imported to Norway’). With emphasis that monitoring for diseases should not only be based on visual inspections but also molecular diagnostics as not all pathogenic symptoms are apparent, in which quite a few pathogens were detected from the soil carried by imported plants.
There were some very passionate talks about the major dangers of the public perception of oomycetes or lack thereof; Thomas Jung (‘Phytophthora: an ancient, historic, biologically and structurally cohesive and evolutionarily successful generic concept in need of preservation’) talked about the potential knock-on effects of renaming the paraphyletic but highly cohesive Phytophthora group. He addressed the long-term implications on legislation, science and public awareness of the pathogens prompting a lot of discussion with the wider-conference group. For example, imagine the potential confusion if Phytophthora ramorum or P. infestans were renamed; it could make studying and presenting information of the pathogen more complicated. This was nicely accompanied by Claire Gachon’s talk on ‘Weathering a wave of novel marine oomycetes of ecological and economic relevance’ which highlighted how marine oomycetes were incredibly understudied and now causing many problems for commercial seaweed cultivation in marine ecosystems.
Another talk of particular interest was by Philip Carella in ‘Leveraging plant evolution to understand Phytophthora infection processes’, where he showed that some Phytophthora sp. could infect basal plants. Studying the differences across the green plants when inoculated with the broad-host range pathogen Phytophthora palmivora can help understand what the conserved host responses are, and how the pathogen’s infection program varies by host plant. For example, with the bryophyte hornwort Anthoceros agrestis the P. palmivora hyphae target the main chloroplast, whereas with the liverwort Marchantia polymorpha it colonises and completes the infection cycle within the air chambers that form part of the dorsal photosynthetic layer. In general, the reliance on effector deployment by the pathogens were incredibly conserved.
Studies on B. lactucae are made challenging by it being an obligate biotroph. It was therefore inspiring for me to discuss methodologies and potential experimental ideas with fellow scientists who have also worked with Bremia. I gained new insights from Mahmut Tör and Deniz Gol, for example, who have achieved drop inoculation of lettuce leaves; a technique that I have not previously got to work in Dundee.
Another was Kyle Fletcher whose work involved developing the very genome I used to screen for new SSR markers. It was of particular interest to hear the up-to-date research other perspectives of my pathogen that he provided in his talk ’Using near-complete genome assemblies to uncover new insights of oomycete biology’. Specifically, the evolutionary dynamism of B. lactucae compared with other downy mildews. I was able to have in-depth discussions of the biology and genomic behaviour of the pathogen and ideas for future experiments as a result of these discussions.
Outside of the conference talks, I was able to have had several in-depth discussions about my research with both academic and industry pathologists specifically during the poster session where I presented my work.
Aside from the general science, the conference scheduled in travel to the UNESCO heritage site of Villa Tugendhat, in addition to visiting the Mendel Museum of Masaryk University within the Augustinian abbey where Gregor Johann Mendel worked and developed his theories on Mendelian inheritance.
Overall, attending the OMGN conference was a rewarding experience, I am incredibly grateful for BSPP for providing the chance to attend this meeting.
Alicia A. Farmer
The James Hutton Institute