These conference reports are written by the beneficiaries of our travel fund
Click here to read more about the fund and apply yourself
MBPP Ambleside 19 – 21 September 2005
Leighton Pritchard, Sonia Humphris, Lucy Moleleki, Christelle Robert, Eleanor Gilroy, and Michael Ravensdale
The Molecular Biology of Plant Pathogens conference was held this year from 19t to 21 September 2005 in Ambleside, Cumbria and is partly sponsored by BSPP. The MBPP meeting provides a forum for young scientists, generally PhD students and first-term postdoctoral researchers, to present their work in a supportive but formal environment. The meeting is popular for its uniquely collegiate atmosphere, which is designed to encourage communication and collaboration between research groups, from principal investigators to postgraduate students. Traditionally, this meeting has been held in rural towns that are not associated with any particular research centre, in part to foster this kind of interaction.
This year’s conference saw the coverage of plant pathogens extended from fungi to bacteria and nematodes for the first time, and the correspondingly increased interest produced the largest ever attendance, at over 100. Organisations with a presence at the meeting stretched across the entire country, as fifty speakers represented universities from Aberdeen to Exeter, and institutes from Dundee to Rothamsted. The host-pathogen systems were diverse, taking in bacterial pathogens of solanaceae such as Erwinia carotovora subsp. atroseptica, Pseudomonas syringae and Ralstonia solanacearum, barley and Arabidopsis mildews, Ganoderma rots on oil palms, nematodes feeding on potatoes, a range of fungal and oomycete crop pathogens, and even Verticillium fungicola, a fungal pathogen of a fungus. Although these systems were diverse, many common themes were identifiable, both in the actions of the pathogens themselves, and in the experimental and investigative methods used.
A very strong theme in this year’s meeting was the perturbation of the host-pathogen system by gene knockout and, particularly this year, gene knockdown. Gene silencing, by RNA interference (RNAi), Virus-Induced Gene Silencing (VIGS) and microRNAs (miRNAs) all featured, revealing intriguing facets of infection from both the host and pathogen sides of the pathological divide. Eleanor Gilroy (SCRI) opened the meeting with a discussion of the plant hypersensitive response (HR), and an investigation of the role of cathepsin B, involving VIGS. She was followed by Claire Walker (U. Aberdeen), who described the role of an RNA helicase involved with Phytophthora infestans sporulation, the function of which was clarified by RNAi gene knockdown. Gene silencing played a major role in investigations into dry bubble in Agaricus bisporus (Ana Costa, HRI Warwick), characterising hydrophobins in Cladosporium fulvum (Helene Lacroix, Imperial College), and the actions of laccase and superoxide dismutase in Botrytis cinerea (Risha Patel, U. Bristol), and an overview of gene silencing technologies in basidiomycetes was provided by Mary Heneghan of the University of Bristol.
Investigations into the molecular control of the host’s biochemistry as part of the pathogen’s action of infection were also a uniting thread for many talks. We heard from Dagmar Hann of the Sainsbury Laboratory how P. syringae flagellins and the Type III Secretion System (T3SS) direct infection on N. benthamiana. There was much interest in the T3SS in bacteria, which introduces effector proteins into host cells, particularly from Sonia Humphris and Lucy Moleleki of SCRI (E. carotovora subsp. atroseptica), Peter Burlinson of the University of Oxford (Pseudomonas species), and Adam Brandon of the University of Nottingham (P. syringae). Robert Jackson of the University of Bath described the modulation of host responses to infection by the production of extracellular polysaccharides by pathogenic bacteria, Lizzie Pirie of Rothamsted Research Institute presented the microscopic visualisation of host-pathogen molecular interactions by Green Fluorescent Protein labelling in the Leptosphaeria maculans infection of Brassica napus, while Lisa Gow at the University of Bristol gave an account of the interactions between potato and Potato Virus Y strain NTN.
Integration of the large amounts of information generated by modern biological methods is a key issue, and several bioinformatics resources and approaches were described. June Petty from the University of Manchester spoke about COGEME, a combined bioinformatic, proteomics and transcriptomics resource provided by the Universities of Manchester, Exeter and Aberdeen, and described case studies using these facilities.
Christelle Robert of SCRI described bioinformatic identification of regulatory sequences in bacterial plant pathogens, and Laura Baxter of HRI Warwick demonstrated the utility of cross-species bioinformatic and sequence analyses in her presentation on conserved pathogenicity regions in four oomycetes. Integration and access to the relevant primary literature is key to research and Thomas Baldwin of Rothamsted RI described a publicly-available database of research papers associated with pathogenicity and virulence provided at RRI.
Some institutions provided several speakers at the meeting, and this allowed some groups to present a number of perspectives on their work. The eight speakers from the Scottish Crop Research Institute covered mechanisms of infection by Erwinia carotovora subsp. atroseptica, interactions between nematodes and the host plant, and the plant hypersensitive response on infection by oomycetes. Oomycete infections of potato and Arabidopsis thaliana by Phytophthora infestans and Hyaloperonospora parasitica and fungal pathogens were the main focus of the eight speakers from HRI Warwick. A large proportion of talks involved collaborations between more than one organisation, and the integrative approach to the study of plant pathology was evident throughout.
Michael Csukai from Syngenta, one of the sponsors of the meeting, gave a talk on the importance of research into the mode of action of their crop protection product range, and the economic and environmental importance of crop protection. This was reflected by several speakers, including Sally Gilbert of Rothamsted RI, who described investigations into the mode of action of a novel fungicide, and the fitness costs of resistance to fungicides in pathogens (Rebecca Wyand and Marion Atkinson, John Innes Centre).
In addition to the many high quality talks given at the meeting, social interaction between all attendees was encouraged, not just at the conference banquet but throughout. On the traditional `free afternoon’, many delegates took the chance to explore the picturesque setting of Ambleside, and in some cases Lake Windermere itself. Meals provided at the conference centre were of a high standard, and following the evening meals many people remained behind to chat about current and potential collaborations, while others did this in nearby pubs. On the last evening of the meeting Nick Talbot gave a very entertaining talk on rice alcohol, where (amongst some rice-related information) he described the existence of a webcam for spotting people with mullet haircuts – you’d be surprised how many are still around! The talk segued into a rice wine (sake) tasting session before the conference banquet, and following dinner the students held a well-deserved party to get to know each other and relax after many excellent talks.
In conclusion, the MBPP meeting yet again successfully delivered a collegiate forum for young scientists in the plant pathogen community to present their work, to gain an overview of the current work in the field, and to foster collaborations that will help maintain the prominence of UK research into plant pathogens well into the next generation of research leaders. If you’ve missed out so far, please come along to the next meeting.
Below are some comments by the students and early post docs:
Sonia Humphris (Post doc)
The meeting environment was very relaxed and informal as only PhD students and first year post docs gave oral presentations. All attendees of the meeting stayed in nearby student accommodation and ate all meals together at the college, meaning delegates could meet in a relaxed and casual environment encouraging interaction between different groups. The free session on the Tuesday gave everyone a break from the talks and the opportunity to take a walk in either the beautiful surrounding countryside or to the numerous shops in Ambleside village.
All talks were of an exceptionally high standard and of particular interest to me, were the two talks given by individuals from Sainsbury laboratory in Norwich. Dagmar Hann found that bacterial mutants defective in the TTSS were non-pathogenic and that two effector proteins (named AvrPto and AvrPto) produced by P. syringae suppress plant defences. I also learned from this talk that plants can detect bacterial flagellin and subsequently activate plant defences. Tatiana Mucyn found a gene in tomato plants, Prf that encodes a protein required for resistance against P. syringae strains producing the AvrPto effector proteins. This seemed relevant to me as I work on the T3SS and will be helping to develop plant response microarrays in the near future.
Lucy Moleleki (PhD student)
In previous years, this conference focused mainly on fungal research. However, for the first time this year, research on other pathogens such as bacteria and nematodes were included. For me, working on bacteria, this was a great opportunity as it meant that I could present my work in this conference and enjoy a wide array of talks.
There were over 100 delegates from well renowned institutes in Britain such as SCRI, Rothamsted, Sainbury (JIC) and universities such as Oxford and Warwick just to mention a few. Since only PhD and first year post docs were given the opportunity to discuss their work, it was less intimidating for me as a PhD student to present. Generally the atmosphere of the conference was very friendly. There were plenty of opportunities for delegates to interact, as we all had our breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same venue. This afforded me a chance to speak to many different people from different institutes.
The questions and suggestions that were given to me will be seriously considered as I progress with my PhD. I also enjoyed listening to talks in other disciplines, but mostly I enjoyed two talks from the Sainsbury lab as these were closely related to my work.
For me as a foreign student, it was also an opportunity to see a different and really beautiful part of Britain that I might not have had an opportunity to visit otherwise. The organizers of the conference had also arranged a two-hour slot for a walk around a lovely lake. That allowed us a chance to enjoy spectacular views and to breathe in the freshness of this area.
Christelle Robert (PhD student)
The different sessions scheduled in Ambleside were really relevant in terms of exploration of the main areas related to plant-pathogen interaction and disease development. These three days were very well organised showing the work of PhD students and post docs in these main areas. The plenary sessions enabled me to have a better understanding of the background to each subject. These conferences are also a good opportunity to meet people from other main bio-centres. I also enjoyed all the events scheduled around the meeting, such as the walk around the lake near Ambleside.
The Molecular Biology of Plant Pathogen meeting is a real challenge in terms of the various topics to be addressed in all the sessions. It would be of great interest to reinforce and enhance the key role of computational biology approaches that have been shown to be of major interest when combined with biological expertise. This meeting would benefit a lot from encouraging more computer scientists to come along and promote strong interactions from both sides, i.e. computational approaches and experimental validations.
Eleanor Gilroy (Post doc)
The picturesque town of Ambleside with quaint slate built houses and shops was an ideal setting for the conference, small enough to walk around the charming streets with ease and just large enough to absorb all the conference attendees in the evenings. The atmosphere was tense at first with the prospect of speaking, at perhaps one’s first ever conference. The mood gradually lightened as each young scientist in turn took their place behind the podium to address the 101 people in the audience, finishing with a sense of satisfaction and relief. Immediately, the benefits of 10-20 minutes of fame became apparent, acting as a lubricant for initiating conversations between other previously anonymous speakers and their renowned supervisors/group leaders in a way that no poster session at larger conferences could ever rival.
The subjects presented, although all related to pathology, were diverse, giving each young speaker confidence that they might actually be the most well-informed person in the room regarding their particular research topic. The talks I found most enjoyable and relevant to my own work was given by Tatiana Mucyn from the John Rathjen lab on the role of Prf in signal transduction by tomato Pto and by Mary Coates from Jim Beynon’s group describing pathogenicity factors in Hyaloperonospora parasitica. In terms of new and interesting areas of research I enjoyed the seminar presented by D. J. I Thomas from HRI on the characterisation of Agaricus bisporus responses to Verticillium fungicola infection and by Neil Horner from Pieter van West’s group who described the potential use of the oomycete Pythium oligandrum to control Botrytis cinerea, Fusarium spp and Phytophthora spp infections in crop plants.
By the end of the meeting, most people were no longer strangers but friends united as representatives of UK plant and fungal pathology that will look forward to meet again at future national and international conferences.
Michael Ravensdale (PhD student)
My experience at the Ambleside conference was very positive and has benefited me in a number of ways. Firstly, I was able to spend time with my colleagues away from the workplace, which facilitated the formation of closer personal bonds. Secondly, I feel much more aware of the current state of molecular phytopathological research in the UK. More specifically, I have gained a deeper understanding of where the major contributors to our discipline are located, who the lead scientists are, and the direction of their research. Finally, I was able to observe a variety of presentation styles, given by speakers of various levels of experience. Through this I was able to gauge my progress in this faculty and to set new goals for my continued development.
Some of the more interesting talks were the ones about fungal, bacterial and viral pathogens of Basidiomycetes, as this subject matter was not familiar to me.
The venue of the conference was marvellous, and I intend to visit Ambleside again.