PlantLink Researcher in the Spotlight – Ramesh Vetukuri

Ramesh Vetukuri is an associate professor at the department of Plant Breeding, SLU. He is also the Biotron Development leader.

What is currently on top of your research agenda?

Currently, my group is working on Spray-induced gene silencing (SIGS): an innovative strategy for plant trait improvement and disease control. SIGS technology is based on the exogenous application of RNA molecules in plants to reduce pest or pathogen impacts, thereby ameliorating biotic stresses and increasing the agronomic performance of crops. We study filamentous pathogen-host interactions with emphasis on small RNA trafficking. Controlling plant diseases via sRNAs is an emerging field of science. To develop SIGS technologies, it is vital to understand how pathogens and their plant hosts execute the sRNA transfer, which is still in its infancy. I have extensive experience working on RNA biology in plant pathogens. This experience serves as a strong foundation for the ongoing research that is of high impact. Combining our basic and applied study would serve as a basis for extending sustainable disease control methods to several plant diseases.

Ramesh has very successfully reached out to the public about his research. Here are links to recent publications at SLU, Sveriges radio and Lantbruksnytt.

-Tell us about your latest publication?

One of our exciting publications is about applying Spray-induced gene silencing as a potential tool to control potato late blight disease.

Here we tested SIGS to control late blight control by spraying potato plants with double-stranded RNAs (dsRNA) with sequences matching Phytophthora infestans genes essential for infection. As a first step to ascertain whether late blight pathogen  P. infestans spores can take up dsRNA directly from their surroundings and plant surfaces, spores of P. infestans expressing Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP- P. infestans) were treated with in vitro (lab synthesized) dsRNAs targeting GFP protein in spores.  The microscope analysis and functional assays revealed that the GFP fluorescence was significantly reduced in the spores suggesting that the dsRNA was effectively taken up by the P. infestans spores and target protein GFP protein is degraded. We further demonstrate the potential of SIGs in controlling potato late blight disease by targeting developmentally essential genes in P. infestans such as guanine-nucleotide binding (G) protein β-subunit (PiGPB1), haustorial membrane protein (PiHmp1) and cutinase (PiCut3). The late blight disease reduction on the potato plants depending on the target gene’s choice is up to 80%.

-What led you into your particular field of research?

My research interests stem from the fact that most of the plant pathology research to date has been focused on virulence genes, and there is currently little knowledge regarding the role of small RNAs and cross-kingdom RNAi in disease progression or resistance. I believe that knowledge of cross-kingdom transport of sRNA in plant-pathogen interactions is fundamental to exploring avenues that could be developed to mitigate disease outbreaks in the longer term.

-What are the implications of your research for the society?

Management of Phytophthora diseases is frequently through the application of copious quantities of synthetic crop protection chemicals that are perceived to be environmentally damaging. Our SIGS research’s fundamental goal is to develop a strategy for late blight disease control that reduces the usage of synthetic crop protection chemicals that can persist in food and the environment. This project, for the first time, provided proof of concept of SIGS to control lateblight. I anticipate that using SIGS to control diseases will reduce the usage of chemical pesticides, and as a naturally occurring biochemical, the dsRNA will not have issues of residue persistence. This reduced environmental impact is consistent with sustainable agricultural practices and will benefit the Swedish economy and the environment. This project will thus generate better alternatives to control late blight and improve potato farming. The longer-term benefit is that farmers who earlier relied only on resistant varieties of potatoes instead of varieties that consumers preferred will be able to return to the cultivation of diverse varieties. Thus, this project has significant value to society, potentially offering both short and long-term benefits to agricultural productivity.

Furthermore, as principal applicant and co-applicant, I have obtained funding to develop SIGS for potato, strawberry wheat, and barley diseases caused by different pathogens. Our study demonstrates that SIGS is a breakthrough discovery and can potentially be used to mitigate potato late blight and further applied to control other plant diseases or any new outbreaks rapidly. Thus SIGS is a green technology and a better and sustainable alternative for plant disease control.

-Finally, let´s say you got unlimited research funds; where would your research be five years from now?

There are gaps in our baseline knowledge of RNAi in plant-pathogen interactions that warrant further research, like how sRNA moves from the host plant to the pathogens and vice versa. So, I would focus my research on addressing these knowledge gaps. I would also like to develop SIGS for multiple plant diseases and develop products that farmers can readily use.

Thank you Ramesh! We wish you the best of luck with your research.

(Photo: Lennart Tejarp)