Norwich Research Park: Vincent Were and the Rice Fungus

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Published:
08:30 25 June 2022



Vincent Were is a postdoctoral researcher at the Sainsbury’s Laboratory at Norwich Research Park. Find out how his work on the pathogenic fungus blast, which devastates rice that would otherwise feed 60 million people each year, is helping to develop disease-resistant plants.

Every month, those who work at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.

Your research is on blast – what is it?

I work in Nick Talbot’s research group at Sainsbury’s Laboratory to develop plants resistant to the blast fungus (Magnaporthe oryzae) – a pathogen that can seriously damage rice crops. The disease affects more than 50 species of grasses, many of which are important cereal crops. It was first observed on foxtail millet and rice plants in Asia, but it can also affect wheat, barley, oats and finger millet, among others.

The disease is caused when a spore lands on a leaf. It forms a pressurized cell called an appressoria which it uses to puncture the leaf surface and infect the cell. The disease appears as spreading brown spots with gray centers that can quickly destroy a planting. In 24 hours, up to 10,000 spores are produced.

I collaborated with researchers in sub-Saharan Africa to collect over 500 samples of the blast fungus. These have been used to inoculate rice plants to see which rice cultivars carry resistance genes that give a good response to the pathogen. I use DNA sequencing to determine sets of genes involved in the disease process during plant-pathogen interaction.

Why is this research important?

The amount of rice destroyed by this fungus alone is enough to feed 60 million people worldwide each year. In East Africa, for example, people used to eat roots like sweet potato, cassava and maize flours. But as cities modernize, rice becomes the preference because it is easy to cook.

Pathogens are always evolving with the emergence of new, more virulent clones, as we have seen with the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19. Another problem emerging from the same fungus is blast, which was first observed in South America but has since devastated crops in Bangladesh and Zambia. So far we haven’t seen wheat fulguration in northern Europe, but if weather conditions change to favor the fungus, it will be a big problem.

How do you conduct your research?

My project focuses on the proteins that the fungus secretes, called effectors. When we sequence fungi, we try to understand how they modulate plant immunity by looking for the genes that code for these secreted proteins. The plant has evolved proteins in the cells that bind to these effectors and initiate immunity and we are using this knowledge to breed resistant plants.

GM foods are not yet accepted in many countries, so to introduce resistance we have to use conventional breeding by crossing farmers’ favorite varieties with resistant donor varieties. We then select plants with the traits we want and when the farmers deploy that plant in the field, it will be resistant to the fungus but retain the desired traits. But since the fungus is always mutating, it takes more than one resistant gene for it to be effective in the long term.


Vincent loves football and enjoys refereeing in his free time
– Credit: Vincent Were

Why did you decide to pursue a career in science?

My earliest plant disease memory is of Aspergillus and Fusarium, which affected maize and bean crops on the smallholdings where I grew up in Kenya. As a child, it was painful to see the harvest destroyed and my mother forced to throw away the food. I was inspired to get into plant science to help small farmers and give something back to the community.

I studied at the University of Nairobi for my first degree and then worked as a research assistant at the Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa Hub (BecA). I got a scholarship and studied at the University of Queensland, Australia, and did my PhD in Biological Sciences at the University of Exeter. My supervisor from Kenya, Dr. Jagger Harvey, saw this position on the rice blast and brought it to my attention and I immediately felt it matched my interest and future plans.

What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?

It’s a fantastic environment for collaboration. You cannot be an expert in everything. As TSL frontman Sophien Kamoun says: “11 Lionel Messi can’t win a game.” It’s always good when employees can add their expertise.

I am also interested in public engagement and how to express science in different ways. Earlier this year, I took part in the Translating Science project in which researchers at Norwich Research Park collaborated with the National Center for Writing. I was introduced to poet Heidi Williamson to work together on ‘It Comes Through the Air’ – a poem about my rice blast work. Heidi saw things differently. She was interested in fungus and plant art: the cyclical patterns formed on the plate due to how light and circadian rhythms affect fungus growth or the smell of rice plants – things that scientists don’t focus on.

What do you do when you’re not working?

When I’m not working, I watch football, play football or talk about football! I used to be a fast attacking midfielder but I can’t run that fast anymore, so I decided to become a referee. As an international person moving to a new place, it’s always difficult to mingle with the locals. But as a referee it’s easy to meet people and there are some very talented players here in Norwich.

Vincent Were is a postdoctoral researcher at the Sainsbury’s Laboratory at Norwich Research Park. You can follow him on Twitter @vinniman

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