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Working with PCR in agricultural research

Jean B. Ristaino has spent her career studying Phytophthora diseases of global importance, and has recently been awarded with the Excellence in International Service Award by the American Phytopathological Society for her achievements.

So Jean, tell us a bit about yourself?

I grew up in suburban Maryland. My grandfather was born in a farming community in Sicily and immigrated to America as part of the wave of Italian immigrants that landed at Ellis Island, so you could say an interest in agriculture was in my blood. We used to visit a lot of national parks when I was a child, and I always wanted to be a park ranger when I grew up. It wasn’t until a research opportunity as part of my undergraduate degree at the USDA in Beltsville sparked my interests in plant pathology, and so my career as a park ranger was put on hold.

Can you tell me a bit about your work on Phytophthora infestans?

I am currently working on one of the most notorious plant diseases, late blight caused by Phytophthora infestans, which is a continued threat to global food security. I first “discovered” herbaria while working at the USDA in Beltsville. My lab was the first to use historic herbarium collections from global 19th century late blight outbreaks to study the population genetics of the pathogen. Our lab addressed questions on the centre of origin and the source of nineteenth century Phytophthora infestans outbreaks and we have used next generation sequencing to track migrations of P. infestans.

We developed a platform of tools for surveillance of recent P. infestans outbreaks including a disease alert and forecasting system, PCR and isothermal tools that are now deployed with the International Potato Center (CIP) in Kenya and Uganda to detect the pathogen and genotype strains. We also helped describe the new hybrid species, Phytophthora andina, found in Ecuador and Peru that shares an ancestral haplotype with the famine-era lineage of P. infestans.

Developing morphological and molecular diagnostic tools including a Lucid key for identification and conducting Phytophthora diagnostics workshops on four continents, has allowed for an improved capacity in the developing world to identify and manage Phytophthora diseases. We also developed a Global Phytophthora Diagnostics Network social media site, shared cultures and deployed technologies for conducting rapid and accurate diagnostic assays.

What excites you most about your job?

I am very passionate about international agricultural research and managing emerging disease outbreaks, and I try to keep actively engaged to alleviate crop losses due to plant diseases and improve global food security. I am also deeply enthusiastic about mentoring developing country scientists, to enable them to pursue research in plant pathology. I work alongside students, scientists and policymakers to improve the capacity of science in the developing world, and to empower women in agriculture research.

Jean Ristaino
Jean B. Ristaino 
is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor at North Carolina State University, USA. She spoke at our qPCR and Digital PCR Congress on the re-emergence of Late Blight and the threat it poses to global food security.

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