ARBRE Interview — Jonathan Plett

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Doctor Jonathan Plett

Chercheur invité

8 April 2015

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Jonathan Plett est un biologiste moléculaire qui a récemment passé un mois avec Francis Martin et son équipe l’unité mixte de recherche LabEx IAM (Interactions arbre-microorganisme) étudiant des interactions plantes/microorganismes symbiotiques. Jonathan est titulaire d’un doctorat en biologie de Queen’s University (Canada) et est actuellement chercheur à l’Institut de Hawkesbury hébergé au sein de l’Université de Western Sydney (Australie), où il étudie la capacité des champignons symbiotiques « à communiquer » avec des plantes tout en colonisant leurs tissus.

Jonathan est un chercheur accompli avec 28 chapitres de livres/publications publiés dans des revues scientifiques (Nature Genetics, PNAS, Current Biology, Trends in Genetics et New Phytologist..) L’objectif général des recherches de Jonathan est « de comprendre comment plantes sont capables de différencier les microorganismes symbiotiques et des pathogènes .. et comment les microorganismes essaient d’influencer le résultat de ces interactions plantes/microorganismes en utilisant des protéines pour altérer la fonction cellulaire végétale. » Le but ultime de son travail consiste à “identifier génétiquement variétés végétales qui peuvent ignorer les organismes pathogènes et qui peuvent améliorer les relations avec les organismes symbiotiques. Ces plantes poussent plus vite, produira plus de nourriture et s’appuient moins sur les pesticides et engrais entraînant ainsi des pratiques forestières et agricoles plus durables et respectueuses de l’environnement».

Nous voudrions remercier Jonathan pour nous avoir fait part de son parcours en tant que chercheur. Ci-dessous est cette interview (en anglais).

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Where are you from originally? And where do you live now?

I am originally from Ottawa, Canada where I lived until I began my PhD studies. I currently live in Sydney, Australia where I am a research fellow at the University of Western Syndey.

What prompted you to pursue a career in research?

When I was 10, an English couple moved in next door and turned their 2 acre property into a giant flower and vegetable garden. I was always over there learning about plants and they eventually helped me build my very own flower garden at home. Over the years of working with plants, I grew to be curious in how they grew and why some plants would do well under certain circumstances and others would not. When I realized that I could spend my life answering basic questions about plant biology I was super excited and chose to enter into a career in research.

What has your career path been to bring you here specifically to work at INRA with the IAM team?

During my PhD I studied the biology of the plant hormone ethylene. While at the time I was studying its effect on plant cell development, this hormone also has a huge role in plant:microbe interactions. Thus, for my postdoctoral research, I really was interested in studying this aspect of plant biology. I got this chance when a position opened up in Francis Martin’s lab to begin to characterize the molecular signaling network controlling the mutualistic symbiosis between the tree Populus trichocarpa and its fungal symbiont Laccaria biocolor. The rest, as they say, is history. I worked with Francis on this topic for four years and we have continued to keep close collaborative research ties since my taking up a position in Australia through research exchanges such as this one.

Tell us about your science – what is your specific focus is and why this is important?

The goal of my research is to foster the relationship between symbiotic soil-borne micro-organisms and plants. These organisms increase plant productivity through improved nutrient availability and plant disease resistance. As intensified agricultural and forestry production is resulting in soils with reduced nutritional value and as plant diseases are becoming more virulent, growers and foresters are becoming more reliant on these symbiotic relationships to support the health and productivity of their plants. Therefore, we need to select plants that will be able to gain the most from relationships with symbiotic micro-organisms. Currently we only have a rudimentary idea of the plant genetics that enable these symbiotic relationships to occur, let alone how we could select plants that foster these symbiotic relationships. My research is addressing this critical lack of knowledge by studying the plant pathways targeted by symbiotic ‘effector’ proteins during the initial stages of the interaction between plants and micro-organisms. Effectors are small-secreted proteins that microbes use to manipulate the plant immune response, thereby fostering symbiosis. Once we know, and understand, the plant pathways targeted by fungal effector proteins, my research will enable the selection of new plant cultivars or tree species that derive the most benefit from mutualistic relationships.

When did you first begin to take in interest in science? – more specifically, genetics, molecular and cellular biology?

I have wanted to be a plant scientist since I was 12 – my first science fair projects was testing hydroponic systems for optimal plant growth. My interest in molecular biology developed in the second year of my undergraduate degree due to a super excellent prof (Dr. Sharon Regan) who would later become my PhD supervisor. Her dynamic and engaging way of presenting molecular biology caught my imagination and has continued to fascinate me (and drive me nuts!!) to this day.

What would you name as the major scientific issues – or next frontiers – for plant development biology?

Returning to the basics. We have been blessed with high-throughput technologies that have given us reams and reams of data. Interpretation of these data, however, rests upon functional and mechanistic gene/organism characterization. As gene characterization goes much more slowly and requires huge amounts of effort this often lags well behind higher-throughput sciences. This leads to interpretation of high-throughput data sets based on imperfect comparisons. Such comparisons are risky as we are beginning to see that the function of homologous genes in between different organisms or even between individuals within 1 species can differ hugely. Therefore, I think that we need to return to a more balanced approach where high-throughput research and mechanistic/fine-detail characterization research go hand-in-hand.

Advice for scientists launching their careers? or young people taking an interest in science for the first time?

I would encourage students just beginning their career to remember that being in science does not mean that you have to be a university professor – there are so many opportunities in industry, government and not-for-profit organizations. It is so easy when going through university to think that the academic life is the only way – it isn’t. I have many friends who have very rewarding careers using their science degree’s in non-academic streams of work. Also be open to leaving your country and studying/working in another part of the world. The experience will not only positively impact your work, but will also give you a better appreciation for how culture impacts science and the scientific process.

Could you comment on the idea of collaboration in science? How has that played a role in your own work?

Collaboration is the life-blood of scientific breakthroughs and innovation. As good an idea as one person may have, it is almost always made better when multiple people are consulted. Collaboration, both national and international, is a cornerstone of my research. I currently have projects with groups in Europe, Canada, the USA as well as within Australia – projects that are yielding new and very cool data that would never be possible if I were working in isolation.

And lastly, where do you hope your science will lead you in the future (in the short or long term)?

Wow – So many possibilities! I think one of the main areas that I would like to develop is the applied aspect of my research. While the majority of my work currently rest in the academic realm of interest, and likely always will, I would also like for my work to benefit people. I would like to work more closely with plant breeders to generate more sustainable crops. I would like to learn from growers how they view their land, their plants and to work more closely with them on topics of combined interest.

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For more information ..

Read Jonathan’s bio at the University of Western Sydney

Learn more about the Joint Research Unit IAM — Tree/Microorganism Interactions (INRA Nancy-Lorraine Center)

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