Hailing Jin receives $4M USDA grant in effort to stop the spread of citrus-destroying disease

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A molecular geneticist at the University of California, Riverside, has secured a four-year grant aimed at halting the spread of a deadly bacterial disease that continues to spread among California’s citrus trees. The award of nearly $4 million, which comes from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will help cure citrus trees affected by huanglongbing disease, or HLB, and protect healthy trees from infection.

The research team led by Hailing Jin, the grant’s principal investigator, aims to achieve this goal by developing therapeutic and preventive solutions using a novel class of citrus-derived antimicrobial “peptides”— naturally occurring chains of amino acids found in all living organisms.

“HLB has no cure so far,” said Jin, a professor of microbiology and plant pathology, who holds the Cy Mouradick Endowed Chair at UCR and is a member of the university’s Institute for Integrative Genome Biology. “We have already identified a novel class of peptides by studying HLB-tolerant close relatives and hybrids of citrus. These peptides can directly kill the HLB bacteria and inhibit their spread in HLB-affected trees. They can also induce plant immune responses to protect trees from future HLB infection.”

HLB
HLB-affected citrus. Credit: Citrus Pest & Disease Prevention Program.

HLB, which is also known as citrus greening disease, has decimated Florida’s citrus groves; the threat to California’s multibillion-dollar citrus industry is grave. The Asian citrus psyllid, the insect that vectors the HLB bacteria from tree to tree, has been found also in Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Cuba, Belize, and Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

To date, the disease has been controlled by planting HLB-free citrus germplasm, swiftly eradicating infected citrus plants, and using systemic insecticides on the Asian citrus psyllid. The University of California’s Citrus Clonal Protection Program, located in Riverside, provides a mechanism for the safe introduction of pest- and disease-free citrus germplasm into California, where the best strategy so far to keep the disease at bay is the application of insecticide treatments to prevent the psyllid’s spread into citrus-growing regions.

“These approaches, however, cannot totally control the disease and do not directly kill the HLB bacteria,” Jin said. “Our approach not only kills the bacteria in affected trees but also can potentially serve as a vaccine for young, healthy citrus trees.”

Jin explained that the peptides her lab has identified are cost-effective, stable at high temperatures, and easy to synthesize. They work better than antibiotics, she said, and are safe, being derived from close relatives of citrus, such as the long-consumed Australian finger lime. The peptides are effective also in killing zebra chip disease bacteria that can threaten the potato industry.

Jin will be accompanied in the research by the following co-principal investigators: UCR’s Kerry Mauck, Georgios Vidalakis, Bruce Babcock, and Tracy Kahn; Kristine Elvin Godfrey of UC Davis; Gregory McCollum of USDA; and Svetlana Yuryevna Folimonova and Megan Melissa Dewdney of the University of Florida.

The project also has a strong outreach component. Jin and her team will work closely with growers, teaching them how to treat HLB-affected trees and vaccinate young plants. The researchers will work closely with the California Citrus Research Board as well as with the EPA.

“What we have is a national emergency,” Jin said. “We need to do whatever we can to make sure that California or other citrus-producing regions do not experience the kind of devastation that took place in Florida. At the same time, we also aim to develop therapeutic solutions to treat and rescue HLB-affected trees in Florida.”

UCR will receive about $2.5 million of the grant. The project will involve the participation of UCR undergraduate and graduate students.

UCR’s Office of Technology Commercialization has filed a patent on the technology.

Hailing Jin receives $4M USDA grant in effort to stop the spread of citrus-destroying disease

A molecular geneticist at the University of California, Riverside, has secured a four-year grant aimed at halting the spread of a deadly bacterial disease that continues to spread among California’s citrus trees. The award of nearly $4 million, which comes from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will help cure citrus trees affected by huanglongbing disease, or HLB, and protect healthy trees from infection.

The research team led by Hailing Jin, the grant’s principal investigator, aims to achieve this goal by developing therapeutic and preventive solutions using a novel class of citrus-derived antimicrobial “peptides”— naturally occurring chains of amino acids found in all living organisms.

Read the full story here.

Research by IIGB’s Joel Sachs shows natural selection favors cheaters

Mutualisms, which are interactions between members of different species that benefit both parties, are found everywhere — from exchanges between pollinators and the plants they pollinate, to symbiotic interactions between us and our beneficial microbes.

Natural selection — the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring — predicts, however, that mutualisms should fall apart. Individuals that gain from the cooperation of others but do not reciprocate (so-called cheaters) should arise and destabilize mutualisms. Yet to date, surprisingly little evidence of such cheating or destabilization exists.

A team of biologists at the University of California, Riverside, has now found strong evidence of this cheating.  Focusing on the interaction between nitrogen-fixing bacteria, or rhizobia, and their legume hosts spanning about 530 miles of California habitat, the researchers found that natural selection in their study populations favors cheating rhizobia.

Read the full story here.

CEPCEB 16th Annual Symposium and Awards Ceremony

CEPCEB celebrated its 16th Annual Symposium and Awards Ceremony on November 30, 2018.

Christina Smolke, Professor of Bioengineering, and by courtesy, of Chemical Engineering at Stanford University, served as the Distinguished Noel T. Keen Lecturer. Christina’s research focuses on developing modular genetic platforms for programming information processing and control functions in living systems, and she presented the talk “Biosynthesis of Complex Plant-Derived Natural Product”.

This half-day event also included talks by CEPCEB’s faculty, including Hailing Jin (“Cross-Kingdom RNAi and small RNA trafficking between plant and fungal pathogens”); S. Hollis Woodward (“Bumble bee nutritional ecophysiology: considering floral rewards from the pollinator perspective”); Dan Koenig (“Plant genome evolution”); Wenbo Ma (“Citrus Huanglongbing: what can we learn from pathogen effectors”); and Ian Wheeldon (“Design and validation of a genome-wide CRISPR screen for the oleaginous yeast Yarrowia lipolytica”).

As always, a true highlight of the day was the award presentations to our junior researchers! Simran Sandhu of the Linda Walling and Peter Atkinson labs received the Neil Campbell Undergraduate Student Award For Outstanding Research. Kelly Clark of the Wenbo Ma lab received the CEPCEB Graduate Student Award for Outstanding Research, and Honghong Wu of Juan Pablo Giraldo’s lab received the CEPCEB Post Doc Award for Outstanding Research.

This year’s special event ended with a post-symposium reception.

ASPB News “Luminaries” features CEPCEB’s Natasha Raikhel

Natasha Raikhel was chosen as subject of ASPB News “Luminaries” column, where student and postdoc members are invited to submit their ideas for a 500- to 750-word interview they might like to conduct with a prominent scientist.

Natasha Raikhel

Distinguished Professor of Plant Cell Biology Emerita, University of California, Riverside

BY PRATEEK TRIPATHI
ASPB Student Ambassador, The Scripps Research Institute

What got you interested in plant biology in general, and what influences directed you to your specific area of research?

Natasha RaikhelIt was an unusual journey. I was a musician and realized I could not be the best of the musicians out there, and hence it could not be my professional career. I became inclined toward biology after crossing off fields I didn’t want to pursue from a list of careers. I had always loved and was fascinated by nature, so I decided to pursue biology. While working as a music teacher, I hired tutors to teach me math, physics, and chemistry and amazingly passed the exams to gain admission to Leningrad University in the Soviet Union, which was very hard.

I was fortunate to have great teachers who motivated me to dig deeper into biology, and I started by working with ciliates. That was the beginning of my scientific career, and I found myself devoted to asking questions and worked to get answers. I defended my PhD and became a cell biologist. This is a key point; as soon as you get interested in biology “in principle,” you will be driven, and you will be more interested.

When I was an assistant professor, I emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States. This was almost 40 years ago. I believe it was the right time, because molecular biology had just started to bloom in the United States. We (myself and my husband—both scientists—and our older son) arrived in Athens, Georgia, and started all over again as postdocs. I started by working with ciliates in the zoology department of the University of Georgia but then moved to the botany department as an electron microscopist in the cell biology lab.

Later, a vibrant leader and great personality who transformed the botany department in the University of Georgia, Joe Key, let me learn molecular biology in his lab. That’s how I stepped into the new field and started studying plant molecular biology. It was a great learning phase in my scientific career. In Joe’s lab I learned cloning and the whole of molecular biology and, in fact, cloned my first gene. I decided to study carbohydrate-binding plant lectin proteins and their role in cell-specific expression, and this became the scientific question of my career at that time.

One day, I was invited for an interview at the Plant Research Laboratory (PRL) at Michigan State University. At that time, it was a pioneering and highly respected institute in plant molecular biology. When I was offered a job at the PRL, I was beside myself! In fact, it was love at first sight. I was so impressed with the vibes and its international environment, and I wanted to work there. The late Hans Kende and Chris Somerville liked the question I was asking, and I was given the opportunity to work in the PRL. These two people inspired me the most as I learned how to empower people and motivate them. Working in the PRL with exceptionally talented students, we found a signal that targeted secretory proteins to vacuoles, and from then onward I became known as a trafficking woman (not drug trafficking, but vacuolar trafficking).

When I look back and try to analyze my past, my advice to the young generation would be that you must give your life a chance, and you must be excited, hardworking, and incredibly driven. Some luck is always helpful, too.

Who influenced your scientific thinking early in your career, and how?

It was Joe Key who I would say made me into a plant molecular biologist. Later, Hans Kende and Chris Somerville were instrumental in shaping my career and who I am today, not only with regard to science, but also as a human being.

What do you think are good career moves for young scientists?

Listen to your heart and to nature. Try to find out what drives you. Be flexible and open to opportunity and challenges, and you will be surprised how this can transform your entire professional career.

If you were able to repeat your years as a graduate student or postgrad, would you do anything differently?

With my career trajectory and the limited choices I had growing up and getting a PhD in the Soviet Union, followed by my move to the United States, I can’t think of any possible way to better deal with it all. Every phase in my life so far has been exciting and brought different flavors so close to me.

What journals do you regularly follow?

I follow all the major journals—Nature, Science, Cell, and PNAS. One cannot read all of it, but I look through these journals and others, including eLife, The Plant Cell, and Plant Physiology.

What scientific discoveries over the past couple of years have influenced your research directions?

I came to this country when molecular biology was just getting started, so I don’t feel like a second-class citizen in that area. Genetics came naturally after I started my own lab. I think genomics changed everything. We don’t have to work on one gene at a time; now we can focus on the whole pathway and articulate a suitable hypothesis specific to our question with one experiment. This is incredible.

What do you think is the next big thing in plant biology?

Well, it’s not in plant biology, but biology in general: we now have an enormous amount of information, and we need to put it all together so that people have easy access to it and can use it to answer fascinating questions and contribute to great science.

As an employer, what are the key qualities you look for in a potential team member?

I look for the “best person.” A best person asks creative and provocative questions. A best person is driven and understands what question he or she is asking and how to approach it. Most importantly, a best person can explain why the question is important. I like people who embrace togetherness, because only together can we make a difference. Students need to be self-motivated and driven. I don’t want to be a constant babysitter. To be independent, you need to be curious and motivated.

What advice would you give to a student interested in plant biology today?

Work hard, ask good questions, and use good controls. Be curious and flexible. Try to take charge of your work. Ask questions—why and how—to yourself as well as to your advisers and mentors. Don’t do an experiment because you can do it (you can do tons of experiments these days!); do it only if you have to do it to move forward. So think before doing an experiment.

What experience or training do you think is most important to have?

A good skill set and experience are a plus. I think creativity and the ability to think deeply are the ultimate keys to a scientific career, and perhaps any career.

What is the single most important factor for a successful career in plant biology?

It is important to take care of people, especially young people. I believe that in the present situation when funding is lacking, we need more leaders. We need to advocate for science and take care of people, society, and, above all, science.

What advice would you give educators to encourage young people to explore science and plant biology?

Teach science very early in their life, and never omit the subject of plant biology from the curriculum! Students must have the opportunity to study plant biology as early as possible to be serious and excited about it. Once they realize how amazing plants are, they are less likely to skip the subject when they go to college. Even for students who choose a different career, serious exposure to plant biology is a foundation for their understanding of and value placed on life on our planet.

How do you look at the future of basic plant science as part of a policy-making body?

It’s hard to say, especially when funding is not good; it’s tough now. I believe we should do what we are doing in the basic sciences and it will get translated. Without basic science, the future of plant biology is a nonstarter. We scientists have to be more proactively involved and make our voices heard by those involved in policy making.

CEPCEB’s Bailey-Serres and Cutler Among 2017’s Highly Cited Researchers

 

Julia Bailey-Serres and Sean Cutler were named by Clarivate Analytics as 2017 Highly Cited Researchers, an annual list recognizing leading researchers in the sciences and social sciences from around the world.

The final new list contains about 3,400 Highly Cited Researchers in 21 fields of the sciences and social sciences. See the full list.

The 2017 list focuses on contemporary research achievement: only Highly Cited Papers in science and social sciences journals indexed in the Web of Science Core Collection during the 11-year period 2005-2015 were surveyed.

Highly Cited Papers are defined as those that rank in the top 1% by citations for field and publication year in the Web of Science.

Congratulations, Julia and Sean!