Plant health: an interview with Dr Andrew Armitage
Posted on May 23, 2023 by Andrew Armitage
In this blog, we caught up with Microbiology Society member Dr Andrew Armitage from the Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich, about his work on plant diseases and the importance of plant health.
What is your name, job title and institution?
My name is Andrew Armitage, and I am a Senior Research Fellow at the Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich.
Can you tell us a little bit about your research and why it is important?
My group focusses on how fungal pathogens cause disease on crops. Pathogens are locked in an evolutionary arms race with their host. We use genomics to study pathogen evolution and how closely-related fungi adapt to cause diseases on different hosts. This allows us to understand how plants are resistant/susceptible to particular fungi, to support crop breeding programmes. Playing genomic games of spot-the-difference between fungi can also identify unique regions of the genome to develop novel diagnostic assays for crop disease. We can also use these genomic approaches to investigate how groups of fungi have evolved fungicide resistance, and are investigating how plant disease may be controlled by beneficial microbes such as viruses and other fungi.
Why is plant health so important?
Losses to food production from plant disease could feed millions of people across the planet every year. These impacts are felt greatest in regions of the world subject to the greatest pressures from climate change and expanding populations.
Fungal plant diseases form a major component of these losses, and impact crops at all stages between planting in the field and our forks. In the field we see soilborne infections of root systems preventing establishment of seed, or later wilting and killing of our crops. We see wind-blown spores landing on leaves, leading to leaf infections progressively reducing photosynthetic potential, and reduced yields. Upon harvest we see latent crop infections creeping in and rotting our foods in transit or storage. On top of all of this, we may observe mycotoxin contamination from undetected fungi posing risks to human health and leading to food shipments needing to be destroyed.
We need to take an active approach to breeding crops more resistant to disease, while investing in new strategies to control pathogens (including greater use of biological control agents), and monitoring pathogen spread to prevent new diseases establishing in response to a changing climate.
How do plants benefit people?
Plants save our lives every day. They provide the air we breathe and the food we eat. They furnish our Green Planet, underpinning food webs and providing habitats that shape our ecosystems.
What is the biggest threat to plant health?
We face a number of major agricultural challenges when feeding the world. Fungal diseases such as wheat and rice devastate staple crops, whilst we also see spreading of pandemics such as Panama disease of banana. Viral diseases have major impacts upon subsistence crops of cassava and yam in regions such as Africa. Whereas emerging bacterial diseases such as Xyella pose threats to food production and the environment across Europe. Researchers and Plant Health agencies need to respond quickly in an ever-changing landscape as climate change shifts the borders on what diseases are found where.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
A career in research is a great path for anyone inquisitive. It allows us to keep learning and keep asking questions.
Why did you choose to study plant science?
I originally studied Ecology as a degree, before moving into genomics and molecular biology over an MRes, PhD and PostDoc. Understanding how organisms interact with one another and understanding how populations of a species differ in the field is fascinating. Being able to look at the genetic basis of these differences and the interactions between organisms is even better.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing?
A teacher would be an interesting career. I love passing on knowledge alongside active research and get a lot of satisfaction from lecturing.