Congratulations to Professor Renier van der Hoorn, Somerville’s Tutor and Fellow in Biology, who has been awarded a €2.5m grant by the European Research Council to continue his work on developing new crop protection strategies by unlocking extracellular immunity.

Pathogens such as fungi, bacteria and oomycetes (a type of organism similar to fungi and algae which can be responsible for devastating plant diseases) are one of the major challenges faced by world farmers.

These tiny organisms decrease world food production by as much as 30%. With food security declining due to rapid growth of the world’s population and the ever-worsening climate crisis, the problem is only growing in urgency.

Harmful pathogens often colonise the extracellular compartment of plants, such as the cell walls and spaces between cells, rather than the interior of the cells themselves. This exposes them to the vast array of potentially harmful metabolites and enzymes secreted by the cells every day, which provides the plants with immunity that is not well understood or exploited for practical applications such as crop protection.

However, extracellular immunity does not offer complete protection to a plant. This is partly because adapted pathogens suppress extracellular immunity.

Research in the field to date has identified only a few extracellular immune components. Professor van der Hoorn aims to use his ERC grant to use a radically new approach to unlock extracellular immunity for crop protection strategies.

His team will use cutting-edge chemical proteomics to discover plant proteins that are manipulated by plant pathogens. This will unlock novel immune components that can be used to pioneer new approaches to protecting crops.

Competition for European Research Council funding is fierce, with only 8% of the 2678 applications made by skilled research teams across the world proving to be successful this year. The 209 successful projects were awarded €507m in total.

Professor Renier van der Hoorn

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