New Faculty Bring New Approach to Studying Plant Disease

by Lynn Laws
CALS Communications Service

Two new faculty members in the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology bring a fresh — and fully loaded with data — perspective to the science of plant diseases.

Thomas Baum, chair of the department, says researchers often study plant disease problems in ways that take very specialized approaches. “We need scientists who pull these different dimensions together,” Baum said, “and are able to look at the problems we’re trying to solve in a more complex manner, in a way we have traditionally not been able to do.”

Wei Wang, left, and Justin Walley are assistant professors who recently joined the department faculty as system biologists studying plant-host interactions.

Helping to fill this need are Wei Wang and Justin Walley, assistant professors who recently joined the department faculty as system biologists studying plant-host interactions.

Wang and Walley were hired as a part of the university’s Presidential High-Impact Hires Initiative. The initiative has provided matching funds to help colleges hire new faculty in high-enrollment programs and areas of strategic importance to Iowa’s economic future.

Wang and Walley were two of four high-impact hires by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences over the past year. The other two focus on crop system modeling (in the Department of Agronomy) and plant genomics and genetics (in the Department of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology). The college has searches underway to hire six more high-impact-initiative faculty to work in areas that include food safety, risk communication, animal science metagenomics and soil –plant-nutrient dynamics, plus a joint search with the College of Business in agricultural finance.

Wang and Walley are valuable additions to address the potential of mining complex and huge amounts of information for new understandings and discoveries — often called big data.

As systems biologists, Wang and Walley use huge volumes of research information and computer software to build mathematical and graphical models to understand the behavior of a system. For example, how a plant fights off disease. Rapid advances in computer and software technologies and the ever-increasing volume and complexity of information collected and stored for analysis in computer databases has ushered in the big data age.

“They both fall squarely under the description of systems biology, but they do very different things, both very intriguing, both very cutting-edge and both highly collaborative,” Baum said.

Walley will focus his research on understanding the molecular signaling between corn plants and pathogens during infection. “Knowledge of how plants defend themselves against infection can be incorporated into different crop improvement strategies,” he said.

Walley earned his doctorate at the University of California at Davis and conducted post-doctoral research at the University of California at San Diego. His past research used global measurements of RNA and protein to study a fungal pathogen in corn and generate predictive models of plant development.

Wang’s research at Duke University, where he completed his doctorate and post-doctoral research, revealed that a plant’s circadian clock can control disease immunity. He found that certain disease defenses peak in the morning, for example, when air moisture and soil moisture are high and fungal pathogens are more mobile.

“Plants can anticipate when a pathogen might come,” Wang said. “We can use this information to help improve agriculture. For example, my research may help to tell when to apply chemicals to defend against different pathogens — when they will be the most efficient, so farmers are not using any more than is needed.”

Baum said Walley and Wang join a strong ISU team in plant pathology and microbiology.

“We have very gifted scientists in this department. I think Wei and Justin will help us reach a new level of basic biology analysis that we wouldn’t have been able to do without their help,” said Baum. “Walley and Wang also will help us train a new generation of system biologists.”