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Meet the researcher working to control plant disease

23 January 2023

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Michelle Hulin is a postdoctoral scientist at The Sainsbury Laboratory on Norwich Research Park. Find out how her work on bacterial evolution will produce new ways of controlling plant disease and lead to more resilient agricultural practices.

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

What does your role entail?

As a postdoc, I focus on implementing the research vision of my group leader. I work in Prof Wenbo Ma’s group, which specialises in understanding the mechanisms by which pathogens (organisms that cause disease in hosts) overwhelm plants to cause disease.

My role as a postdoc is an intermediate one between full-time researcher and project manager. My day-to-day activities are extremely varied and I get fantastic opportunities to learn about different aspects of research on the job.

I work with specialist equipment in a molecular biology lab as well as working hands on with plants in glass houses. After collecting data, I do computational analyses with a technique called bioinformatics. I design and conduct experiments, then write up and communicate the results. I also teach and supervise students working on related projects in the lab.

What is your research project?

I’m interested in how bacteria evolve to cause disease. This is where changes in bacterial DNA lead to the bacteria becoming more likely to cause disease on plants, similar to how viruses that cause colds and flu change over time in humans.

Bacteria live on plants often without causing disease and sometimes benefiting the plant. However, under certain conditions they may adapt to become pathogens. One of the major ways that bacteria cause disease is through injecting plant cells with proteins called effectors. The bacteria produce these proteins to suppress the plant’s immune system and promote an environment that allows the bacteria to grow. One way bacteria can gain new genes encoding these effectors is by interacting with other bacteria to share genes. This process is called horizontal gene transfer and allows bacteria to adapt very quickly.

I am trying to improve our understanding of how pathogen effector proteins manipulate the plant host. I analyse the complete DNA sequence of each bacteria, otherwise called its genome, to characterise these proteins. This is computer-based, using bioinformatics which involves statistical programs and coding to look through hundreds of genomes. By comparing pathogen and non-pathogen sequences I can better understand which genes in the bacteria might be involved in pathogenicity.

My research focuses on Pseudomonas syringae – a diverse group of bacteria that affects many different trees and crops. I study Pseudomonas pathogenicity on model plant species, which are easy to grow and use in the laboratory, including tomato plants and a common weed called Arabidopsis.

Why is this research important?

The world’s agriculture is threatened by these diseases, which is exacerbated in high-density plantings of modern farming and in some instances by climate change. Antimicrobials are the most effective control for plant disease. However, antibiotics are prohibited in European agriculture due to the global antibiotic resistance crisis. This means there are limited ways of controlling bacterial diseases. Some of the approved methods, such as spraying copper compounds, are harmful to the environment and there are ongoing efforts to reduce their usage. This means we have few ways to combat bacterial diseases on plants.

By increasing our understanding of these bacterial pathogens, we can produce new ways of controlling disease. We can also design new crops that are able to resist them.

Michelle Hulin with her rescue Greyhound, Remus (Image: Michelle Hulin)

What first got you interested in science?

I grew up in Wiltshire and enjoyed science in school. I decided to do a degree in Biology at Bath University, but it wasn’t until I experienced a laboratory environment that I realised how much I enjoyed it and wanted to become a scientist.

After I graduated from Bath, I went straight into my PhD at the University of Reading in 2014 and was based at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Kent, which focuses on trees and soft fruits. Here I worked on bacterial diseases of cherry trees. Next, I did my first postdoc before moving to Norwich in 2020 to join The Sainsbury Laboratory, as it is a world-leading institute for plant pathogen research.

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

Norwich Research Park is like a big community. There’s so much good science happening here, and the facilities are excellent. The research and people are diverse across the Park, but there’s always connections you can make. If you’ve got a problem, there will be someone with expertise that can help you. This creates an opportunity for great collaboration.

My current project involves a technique called metabolomics which is the study of small molecules in cells. The John Innes Centre has a platform for this, so I’ve spent the past six months collaborating with the scientists there, who trained me up. Doing a postdoc here has also allowed me to expand my skillset. I’ve become proficient in techniques that I would never have learned and am excited to apply these in the next steps of my career.

What do you get up to when you are not working?

I have a rescue Greyhound called Remus, although he is not as active as he used to be! I like jogging and I would love to train for a marathon someday. I also like exploring rural Norfolk, finding cosy, dog-friendly pubs and visiting the coast. I go to see the seals at Horsey every year. I also really enjoy travelling and one of the privileges of being a scientist is going to conferences and meeting diverse people all over the world.

Michelle Hulin is a postdoctoral scientist at The Sainsbury Laboratory on Norwich Research Park. You can follow her on Twitter @michhulin

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