Eva Stukenbrock receives ERC funding to study fungal pathogens

European Research Council funds "FungalSecrets" research project at Kiel University with two million euros to uncover links between fungal pathogens and plant microbiome

February 03, 2023

- Joint press release by Kiel University and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology –

Last Tuesday, the European Research Council (ERC) announced funding for the project "FungalSecrets: The role of plant microbiota in the evolution of fungal pathogens and their repertoires of secreted proteins" at Kiel University. Over the next five years, Professor Eva Stukenbrock from the Botanical Institute and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology Plön (MPI-EB) and her research team will be able to investigate how the plant microbiome, i.e. the microbial colonisation of a plant, is impacted by fungal pathogens at the molecular level. The research project, which will begin in spring, is pursuing the key question of whether and how fungal pathogens influence the microbial colonisation of their host plants by releasing certain molecules to support infection. Stukenbrock, who is a member of the Collaborative Research Center (CRC) 1182 "Origin and Function of Metaorganisms" and spokesperson of the Kiel Plant Center (KPC) at Kiel University, is receiving a so-called ERC Consolidator Grant for these studies, which includes two million euros in funding.

"I would like to warmly congratulate Eva Stukenbrock and her research team on behalf of the entire University Board! With this significant funding, the European Research Council is first and foremost honouring her excellent personal achievements in researching the relationships between plants and microorganisms. At the same time, the ERC’s commitment emphasises the growing importance of this research field at the Kiel University, which promises great potential for applications in sustainable plant protection in the future," said Kiel University Vice President for Research, Professor Eckhard Quandt.

Plant microbiome and fungi fight each other at the molecular level

For many years, scientists have compiled numerous details about the molecular interactions of plant pathogens and plant immune responses. In particular, they have focused on certain key molecules secreted by pathogens to interact with plant receptors. "When a plant is infected by a harmful fungus, a variety of so-called effector proteins are released by the pathogen in the process, and these interact with the host's immune system," explains Stukenbrock, head of the Environmental Genomics working group at the Kiel Botanical Institute, who will be collaborating in the "FungalSecrets" project with Professor Bart Thomma from the University of Cologne and Professor Ksenia Krasileva from the University of California, Berkeley, among others.

In their project, the researchers want to find out the role of effector proteins in pathogen-microbiome interactions. They will ask if pathogens specialize to the particular microbiome of their host and which role effector proteins may play to this.  They hypothesize, for example, that the plant microbes can release certain substances that are harmful to the pathogens in order to ward off fungal attempts to infect the plant. "How exactly this battle between fungi and the plant microbiome takes place at the molecular level and what the functional significance of the substances exchanged in the process is has been largely unknown until now. This is where we would like to start with our new research project," continues KPC spokesperson Stukenbrock, who also heads a research project in the CRC 1182.

Research into fungal pathogens for sustainable plant protection strategies

In the "FungalSecrets" project, the Kiel scientists try to uncover these still hidden mechanisms and record the full repertoire of effector proteins that are released by harmful fungi when they infect a plant. "We suspect that many of these effectors help fungi to modify the microbes already present in the plant, thereby facilitating host invasion," says Dr Elisha Thynne, a post doc working in Eva Stukenbrock’s team. The new research project combines bioinformatic, evolutionary, molecular and microbiological approaches with practical plant infection experiments to test these hypotheses. "In doing so, we want to examine a total of 2000 such effectors produced by four different fungi in order to determine their protein structures and identify different functions," Thynne summarizes. On this basis, the Kiel researchers want to identify the potential antimicrobial properties of such effector proteins to determine their effect on the growth of 400 different bacteria found in crop plants. They plan to use a number of wild plant species as model organisms, which are closely related to common crops such as wheat, barley and sugar beet. Overall, the partners in the "FungalSecrets" project hope to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms by which fungi can influence the plant microbiome and thus facilitate infection. It is also planned to closely link this work to the research programme of the Kiel CRC 1182, whose third funding phase is currently being prepared.

In the long term, the scientists hope that this research project will have significant application potential: fungi are among the pathogens that can cause the most damage in the cultivation of crops. In the case of wheat, for example, which is the second most commonly grown crop in Europe, fungi can cause crop losses of up to 50 per cent, and thus pose a key challenge to food security. "Overall, we aim to fill fundamental knowledge gaps related to the ecology of fungal pathogens. Our research will have implications for applied crop research, resulting in better crop protection strategies against fungal pathogens. Thus, with our new project we hope to contribute to the scientific basis for maintaining plant health and food security in the future," Stukenbrock summarises.

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