Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Experts get lifetime achievement awards for unraveling rice blast’s mysteries

MANILA, Philippines, 12 October—Three renowned experts in rice blast research were presented with lifetime achievement awards during the 7th International Rice Blast Conference (IRBC07) for their contributions in helping understand and manage the complex and destructive disease.

The awardees were Dr. Shinzo Koizumi, technical adviser, Japan International Cooperation Agency Tsukuba International Center; Dr. Seong-Sook Han, director of the Korea Project on International Agricultural (KOPIA) Ethiopia Center; and Dr. Robert Zeigler, director general emeritus and former plant pathologist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

Koizumi (photo left) spent around 40 years studying rice blast in several institutions across Japan, including the Tohoku Agricultural Research Center and the Central Region Agricultural Research Center (formerly the National Agricultural Research Center), among others. His foray into rice blast research started as an undergraduate student. After working as a researcher of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Japan, he became increasingly more involved in rice blast research, looking into the variations in the disease.

"I think research may be important to reduce application of chemicals to increase profit," Koizumi said. "The farmer does not have enough money to buy expensive chemicals. So, this is timely and very important.”

Han started her journey as a plant pathologist in the Rural Development Administration of Korea where she studied the disease for 33 years. She became the director of the KOPIA Ethiopia Center two years ago.

"My focus was solely on the blast fungus," she recalled. "And then I realized that it was a mistake because of how limited the available information was and I was only studying the fungus itself. So, now we look at the rice plant as well. We should know what kind of interactions there are between the fungus and the plant."
Dr. Leung (left) presented Dr. Han (right) with the lifetime achievement award. 

Her insight very much agreed with that of Zeigler’s, who spent nearly half a lifetime studying and understanding the shifty disease. "The trick is to work on the plant side so it's able to resist or identify the blast fungus and keep it at bay," he said.  “What makes rice blast so tricky is that, unlike other serious rice disease such as tungro, the progression of rice blast disease involves thousands of fungal genes." That means it has a range of mechanisms to generate variation.

"It's the variation that's critical to how it interacts with the rice plant," said Zeigler. "In fact, the genome of the rice blast fungus can be thought of as being infected with viruses and those viruses actually enable the fungus to change its genome. Those are called transposable elements—it's DNA that moves around the fungal genome. When they move, they cause mutations that can either cause genes to lose function or possibly even create a new function.”

Dr. Valent (left) conferred the award on Dr. Zeigler (right). 
As a scientist, Zeigler noted the importance of pursuing not only what is intellectually interesting, but also what is applicable. "I think we need to be able to turn questions around and ask in the opposite direction.” He said. “Like, a lot of people say, 'we want to understand how the pathogen works.' And I like to say, I'm not interested so much what the pathogen can do; I'm interested in what it can't do.”

The awards were conferred by Drs. Hei Leung and Bo Zhou, IRRI plant pathologists and cochairs of the local IRBC07 organizing committee, and Dr. Barbara Valent, chair of the event’s international organizing committee.

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