Understanding plant-pathogen interactions and disease resistance for the genetic improvement of crop plants


Research in my program focuses on the co-evolution of plant-pathogen interactions, structure, function and evolution of disease resistance loci in plants (maize, switchgrass and soybean), genetic diversity and population structure of rust fungal pathogens and biomass improvement for bioenergy. Identification and characterization of disease resistance loci that confer resistance to important diseases such as leaf rust is crucial to determine the mode-of-action of resistance and for the design of novel strategies to develop cultivars with durable resistance.


The majority of important crop plants including soybean, maize, lettuce and likely switchgrass rely on single-gene resistance to various diseases. However, this type of resistance often breaks down when the pathogen population loses or mutates the effector proteins. This instability in pathogen effector proteins has been the biggest challenge in controlling serious losses to plant disease, requiring breeders to repeatedly develop new varieties with different resistance genes. Therefore, a long-time goal for agricultural crop protection has been broad-spectrum “durable” resistance. I believe that the most efficient method to control serious losses to diseases is to grow disease resistant varieties. Hence, my broad research interests lie in the improvement of crop plants for disease resistance by first understanding the molecular and genetic basis of resistance durability and then the use of this knowledge to develop or improve strategies for durable and stable resistance to leaf rust diseases including common/southern rust of maize and Asian Soybean Rust.


Research in my lab focusing on the genetic improvement of maize and switchgrass has identified and characterized disease resistance and pathogenesis related (PR) genes that either confer or are associated with resistance to important crop plant diseases (common and southern rust/ Ustilago maydis)


Identification and characterization of resistance gene homologues and pathogenesis related genes is a key factor in understanding plant defense responses and the mechanisms controlling durable plant resistance. This work will contribute to a framework for understanding the molecular and genetic basis of durable resistance and designing/improving methods to develop maize and switchgrass cultivars whose resistance to leaf rust and smuts lasts over time. This new knowledge base will direct discussion and initial steps to enhance natural resistance mechanisms in maize and switchgrass and similar crops.

State Issue

Food Safety and Quality


  • Year: 2020
  • Geographic Scope: International
  • County: Clarke
  • Location: College Station, Athens
  • Program Areas:
    • Agriculture & Natural Resources


    Smith, Shavannor


CAES Collaborator(s)

  • Bahri, Bochra Amina

Non-CAES Collaborator(s)

  • Jeffrey Bennetzen
  • Katrien Devos
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