In conversation with Corina Vlot

28 February 2021 - By: Caroline Wood

Originally from the Netherlands, Corina Vlot now leads the Inducible Resistance Signalling group at the Institute of Biochemical Plant Pathology of the Helmholtz Zentrum München, German Research Center for Environmental Health in Munich. She talks to Caroline Wood about the complex world of plant immunity, the promise of CRISPR-Cas9 and how to keep a lab running during COVID-19.

Corina Vlot

Caroline Wood (CW): Hello Corina! Please could you introduce yourself and your research?

Corina Vlot (CV): I am a plant pathologist, with a PhD in plant virology from Leiden University. Since my postdoctoral days, I have specialised in systemic acquired resistance (SAR) and became a lab group leader in 2009. SAR induces whole-plant resistance to pathogens in response to local exposure to a pathogen or a defence-associated elicitor chemical. Much of my lab’s work has focused on using genetic mutants of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana to discover new components of SAR; we also test and apply this knowledge to the crop plants wheat and barley. We are combining this knowledge with systems biology approaches, such as transcriptomics and metabolomics, to integrate the different compounds involved in SAR into signalling pathways and networks. More recently, we have started working on volatile organic compounds, which can propagate immune signals and induce resistance between plants. Ultimately, we hope to uncover how SAR is involved in this inter-plant communication, besides in the interactions between plants and both pathogenic and beneficial microbes.

CW: How did the coronavirus lockdown affect your work?

CV: Like plant scientists worldwide, our experiments were thrown into complete disarray. Fortunately, some of our most important barley mutant lines were segregating, so we simply left these to set seed for harvesting at a future time. But we lost many experiments. Because they involved genetic mutants, it would have been illegal to take them home!

It was hardest for my PhD students, who effectively lost double the amount of time that the lockdown lasted when you count the months spent setting up aborted experiments and then the time required to grow new plants. After the initial lockdown, we were allowed back to the lab very slowly: first a technician to water the plants, then one or two students on a part-time basis. Fortunately, my group were very understanding about the need to prioritise the final-year students who were nearer their completion date.

CW: How has your research been affected since?

CV: We are a medium-size lab of 10, but we still can’t all meet together in person because current regulations limit group sizes to five. So, our weekly lab meetings continue to be held by video conferencing, but by September we were really starting to miss having in-person interaction and socialising during lunch and coffee breaks. My PhD students are now being more proactive in organising online journal clubs and social nights where they play online games together.

I’m fortunate that I have my own office, so I do go into the lab every day now. I would have found it very demotivating to have never seen my supervisor when I was a PhD student. It also gives me valuable headspace, which I really appreciate now after having to homeschool my daughter over the summer!

Our department is continuing its regular programme of lectures and seminars, although these are now all online of course. I was sceptical at first but I have been surprised at the high levels of interaction. Certain seminars are even attracting larger audiences than before, because researchers from our collaborating institutes can now easily attend without having to travel. Similarly, I’ve noticed much more discussion from the students taking my teaching modules. If they want to ask a question, there is no longer the intimidating prospect of raising their hand in a lecture theatre. Instead, they can keep their cameras off, hide behind their screens and simply post their question in the chat function.

CW: Have you missed being able to network with other researchers at conferences?

CV: Definitely. For all the advantages that online events have in terms of accessibility, they don’t offer the same opportunities to network and introduce yourself. This is especially important to me, because I have only just started investigating volatile organic compounds within my work on induced immunity. At the 2020 SEB Annual Conference, I was due to host a session that brought these areas together and included speakers who are the leaders in these fields. This will now take place as part of the SEB 2021 Annual Conference with an even stronger line-up of speakers. I’ve found that organising a session is the best thing one can do for growing one’s network.

I particularly enjoy the SEB meetings because the topics are diverse but the sessions provide a focused, in-depth view on subjects that one doesn’t necessarily get anywhere else. The session organisers also tend to be real experts on the topic, and you can sense the enthusiasm by which they have put the programme together.

CW: What is your biggest worry about the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on plant science research?

CV: My biggest worry is that it will become more difficult for plant researchers to obtain funding. Grant applications I submitted last November, for example, are still with the panels although they were due to be decided in June. With so much focus now on COVID-19-related research, the traditional sources of funding for other areas of science may not have the same amounts to offer.

CW: What are your plans for the near future?

CV: Over the next 5–10 years, we hope to exploit the CRISPR-Cas9 system to enable us to perform reverse genetics as rapidly in wheat and barley as we can in Arabidopsis. This will allow us to develop mutant lines affected in specific genes, so that we can assess that gene’s exact function in plant defence. When we started this work, there were no tools available to optimise CRISPR-Cas9 for plant genomes because most of the software to design guide RNA strands is based on mice and human genomes. This is a problem, because the barley and wheat genomes are highly repetitive, so the system needs to be optimised to find the best configuration. Our objective is to establish these resources and then make them available to the wider plant science research community.

What I love most about plant immunity is that there are always new challenges, especially because solving one problem can introduce another. When it comes to induced resistance, the hormones involved are often antagonistic, so activating one defence pathway can inhibit another. I really enjoy a challenge so I am drawn to the task of working out how to activate immune responses without these antagonistic effects.

CW: What do you like to do outside the lab?

CV: Actually, I am always thinking about plant immunity because my husband and I own a small organic farm and we are always observing things in the fields that relate to my work in the lab. For instance, we’ve clearly seen that when different crops are grown together, they experience much less disease than a monoculture.

Corina will be hosting the session Biogenic Volatile Organic Compounds: Mediators of Inter-Organismic Interactions at the 2021 SEB Annual Conference. For more information, see https://www.sebiology.org/events/event/seb-antwerp-2021/programme/plant-biology-sessions

SAR research in Corina’s laboratory is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) as part of collaborative research centre (SFB)924 and priority programme (SPP)2125, and research on CRISPR-Cas9 methodology by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

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