Emily Alff (right), a graduate student, has received a travel grant to attend the American Society of Plant Biologists annual meeting in Texas.

Have grant, will travel

Prestigious travel grants allow UD students to attend plant biology conference

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9:33 a.m., March 30, 2012--Harsh Bais, assistant professor in the University of Delaware Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, has chosen his research team well. Two members of his group, postdoctoral researcher Venkatachalam Lakshmanan and graduate student Emily Alff, have received travel grants from the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), which will enable them to attend the society’s annual meeting this summer in Austin, Texas. 

According to Bais, the number of ASPB travel grants is limited to 20 for postdocs and 30 for graduate students worldwide.

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Alff received the ASPB travel grant for her project that explores the role of rhizobacteria in rice growth promotion and defense against the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae, commonly known as rice blast.

Her research examines the natural relationships between rice plants and the microbial communities that inhabit the rhizosphere, the area surrounding their root systems. Secretions from the root system are rich in nutrients, which sustain microbial communities that can be detrimental or beneficial to the plant. 

Rice blast can cause devastating crop losses, but Alff’s research has demonstrated that certain bacteria can significantly decrease the effects of rice blast and improve plant growth. The goal of the project is to provide a basis for inoculating seeds with beneficial microbes, which is cost-effective for farmers and more environmentally sound than fungicides.

Lakshmanan’s research was also selected for oral presentation in a “mini-symposium” on plant-microbe interactions as part of the conference. He studies microbe-associated molecular patterns, or MAMPs, which are responsible for triggering a plant’s immune response if it is attacked by a pathogen. This signaling process is well understood in response to foliar pathogens; however, the role of MAMPs in response to the belowground microbial community is largely unknown. 

Lakshmanan’s project indicates that certain beneficial rhizobacteria are able to block MAMPs signaling and subdue an immune response from the plant, allowing them to colonize the plant’s root system. The bacteria are beneficial because they subsequently activate the plant’s immune response if it is attacked by another pathogen. Lakshmanan’s research is expected to expand the current understanding of intra-plant signaling and its relationship with microbial communities.

Awards for current research in the field, which affects many of today’s top issues, will be presented at the Plant Biology conference. Alff is eager to see how it will play out. 

“It is extremely important to me to see the impact that plant biology research is making towards the vital issues of food security and safety, climate change, bioenergy, and medicine,” she said.

Lakshmanan sees the plant biology symposium as “a unique opportunity to network and receive feedback from peers.” At the conference, Alff and Lakshmanan will present and discuss their research with plant biology faculty, postdocs and students from around the country.

Alff says, “This meeting will help in my transition from a graduate student to a professional scientist. Receiving feedback from the plant biology community will help in preparation for my thesis defense and eventual job interviews.”

The research conducted by Alff and Lakshmanan in Bais’ lab is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Delaware EPSCoR program.

Article by Jacob Crum

Photo of Emily Alff by Kathy F. Atkinson

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