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2016 Anton Lang Memorial Award Winners Announced

Ian Major, Ph.D., and Li Zhang have added their names to the PRL annals as recipients of the 2016 Anton Lang Memorial Award during a ceremony which took place on Monday, April 4, 2016 at the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology building.

The Anton Lang Memorial Fund was established in honor of the founding director of the Plant Research Laboratory, who passed away in 1996. Proceeds from the fund go towards annually supporting the Anton Lang Memorial Lecture – given this year by Professor Julia Bailey-Serres, Ph.D., from the University of California, Riverside – and recognizing a graduate student and a postdoctoral research associate who exemplify the research excellence, ideas, dedication, and vision of Anton Lang.

The awardees received an engraved rosewood piano finish clock, a cash reward, and their names have been added to a permanent award plaque located in the Plant Biology Laboratories.

Helping Plants Defend Themselves

Li Zhang with her award
Li Zhang

Li Zhang and Ian Major both focus their research on plant defense. With plants facing increasing stresses such as climate change, pathogens and insects, and an increasing global population, understanding the intricacies of plant defense mechanisms can help develop crops better suited to overcome these challenges.

Both scientists have directed their attention toward the Jasmonate hormone, which plays a crucial role in activating plant defenses against insects. Zhang, a plant biology PhD candidate from China working in the lab of Professor and HHMI-GBMF Investigator Sheng Yang He, has focused on bacterial interaction with plants, specifically the pathogen Pseudomonas syringae. This bacterium secretes a toxin called coronatine, which activates the jasmonate signaling system in the plant. Normally, when a plant senses coronatine, it turns on its insect defense system, which, in turn, leads to downregulation of the plant’s bacterial defense system activated by the salicylic acid hormone (Fun fact: salicylic acid is that anti-inflammatory compound in over-the-counter aspirin and acne meds). In other words, the bacterium hijacks the plant’s defense system, fools it into thinking it is being attacked by an insect (which turns off the pathogen defense), finally allowing the invader to win the battle.

To help counter the attack, Li used a directed mutagenesis approach – a process in which an organism’s genetic information can be subtly changed –  to reengineer the cell receptor responsible for detecting coronatine. Ultimately, Li was successful in engineering a plant that is not only capable of maintaining a robust defense against bacterial pathogens, but that still maintains appropriate resistance to insect and pest attacks.

Zhang’s results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ian Major with his award
Ian Major

Ian Major, a postdoc hailing from Canada and residing in the lab of MSU Foundation Professor Gregg Howe, focuses on how the jasmonate hormone affects plant growth and energy capture. In one research project, Ian and his collaborators found that, when under attack, the plant’s jasmonate signaling triggers rapid and persistent suppression of its own growth, but without a clear sustained effect on photosynthesis. This challenges the idea that plants attacked by insects repress their photosynthetic activity as part of their defense response, an idea that has been long taken for granted in plant biology circles.

“Think about it,“ Ian said, “it never made sense that photosynthesis stopped when the defense mechanism came up. The metabolic reactions for plant chemical defense need a lot of carbon, and it had to come from somewhere.” Turning on the plant defense system instead diverts resources to protecting the plant, relegating plant growth mechanisms to the background. These results were published in Plant Physiology.

During the awards ceremony, both recipients repeatedly diverted the attention from themselves, stressing the importance of collaborative work, one of the hallmarks Anton Lang instituted when he founded the PRL in 1965. Ian mused that, “Collaboration is a real strength of MSU PRL.”

A full room in anticipation of the awards announcements.
A full room in anticipation of the awards announcements.

Case in point, Zhang’s work was done in collaboration with the Howe (insect defense) and Yan labs (computer modeling) within MSU and with the Boland lab in Germany (providing and analyzing the JA-Ile ligand). Major worked with the He (pathogen infection), Kramer (photosynthesis measurement), Chen (gene expression analysis), and Sharkey labs (gas exchange measurement), among others in the MSU and national science communities. “It was a requirement,” Ian said. “My background is in defense, but I hadn’t worked with photosynthesis. The ability to go across the hall and interact with experts in photosynthesis was a great asset. They helped me with training, testing, and data analysis.”

Li confirmed this by adding that, “Collaboration with the Howe lab is very interesting. As we work in the same lab space, I can just drop in and get help almost anytime!”

It is this collaborative spirit which has allowed these significant advances to be made. Ian drove that point home: “If labs were isolated, we could not imagine or intellectualize the next challenges; we would not be able to discover things the way we do when working across plant fields.”


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