Fascinated by Fungi

Professor Eva Stukenbrock has been a member of the French Academy of Sciences since January 2022. This special honour is largely based on her expertise on pathogenic fungi. How she discovered her love of fungi and what plans she has for plant sciences in Kiel, she describes in conversation with Rosemary Wilson, coordinator of the Kiel Plant Center.

Close up of a root tip with fungal infection
Source: Henrik Nilsson, Erik Kristiansson, Martin Ryberg, Karl-Henrik Larsson (2005)

Mycorrhiza refers to a symbiosis of plant and fungus. The fungus envelops the plant's fine roots (photo) and supplies them with nutrients and water. In return, it receives the photosynthesis product sugar.

Rosemary Wilson: What fascinates you about fungi?

Eva Stukenbrock: Fungi are such an important group of organisms. They literally shape our world, yet they are often overlooked. Some of the first fossils of land plants have fungal structures associated with them, implying that the colonisation of plants on land was only possible with the help of fungi. Their diversity and ecology are completely unexplored. There is so much to discover!

Did you always want to be a scientist?

Growing up, my dream was to help shape environmental policy around the world. After my undergraduate degree I went to Brazil to work on an agroforestry project, and it was here I became fascinated by mycorrhizal fungi. In forests with poor soils, these fungi play a very important role providing trees with nutrients. When I returned to Denmark I knew I had to do my Masters thesis on mycorrhizal fungi. The project focussed on Danish coastal vegetation, so not quite so exotic, but a very exciting project, and it motivated me to do a PhD. From then on it was clear I wanted to become a scientist.

How did you get interested in pathogenic fungi in wheat?

My heart has always burned for a particular group of mycorrhizal fungi called arbuscular fungi. These fungi have a very complex genetic structure that is difficult to understand. I needed to learn more about fungal genetics, so for my PhD I joined a group in Zurich who were world-leading in the field of population genetics of pathogenic fungi. While I was there, we received samples of wild grass relatives of wheat from the middle East, allowing us to test and confirm the hypothesis that the wheat pathogen Zymoseptoria triciti has its origin in the middle East, where wheat was first domesticated. This pathogen causes a lot of destruction for wheat production, and we could

What lessons can we learn from your research?

It's been very exciting to study the link between agriculture and pathogens. We see that while humans have generated many new plant and crop species by domestication we have also, unfortunately, generated new pathogens. We are now facing big challenges in terms of crop production, controlling these pathogens and dealing with the associated increase in fungicide resistance. In essence, what allows these pathogens to evolve and spread so rapidly are the monocultures in the fields. Creating heterogeneous environments will slow them down, and there are scientists in Europe testing ways to increase crop diversity.

You are one of the founding members of the Kiel Plant Center. What was the motivation behind establishing the KPC?

Kiel is a fantastic place to do science. When I arrived here, I was welcomed into several existing and developing research networks and initiatives focussing on research fields relevant to my interests, particularly metaorganisms and their evolution. But although there was a lot of expertise in plant science in Kiel, we lacked a structure to bring us together. I think the KPC fills that gap and personally, I have established many new interactions thanks to the KPC, including a large new research collaboration exploring how plants adapt and react to biotic and abiotic stress. Especially in the light of climate change we think there is a lot to learn about how microorganisms associated with plants can affect plant health, both positively and negatively, against a background of drought, or elevated temperatures. I'm very excited about this project and the future of the KPC.

What one thing would you change about your job?

It's a great privilege to do what I do. It's very stimulating and inspiring being able to talk to and learn from people from different disciplines across the world every day. However, as a professor you are far away from the actual research. From time to time I would love to be able to walk into the lab, pick up a pipette and do some experiments alongside my students!

The interview was conducted by Rosemary Wilson

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About the Académie des Sciences:

Created in 1666, the French Academy of Sciences is an assembly of scientists, chosen among the most distinguished French and foreign specialists. It examines the political, ethical and societal issues surrounding the current and future scientific topics. The Academy reflects, anticipates, explains and pronounces itself, mainly through opinions and recommendations and takes position when necessary. It aims to provide policy makers with a framework of expertise, counsel and alert and more broadly to enlighten the debates and choices of our society. In addition, the Academy of sciences supports research, is committed to the quality of science education and promotes scientific life at the international level.