Science - February 2, 2012

Vici grant for camouflaged moulds

Plant researcher Bart Thomma gets a Vici subsidy of 1.5 million euros from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) to study how pathogenic moulds can hide themselves.

Bart Thomma
I'm extremely happy,' the phytopathologist comments on his achievement. 'A prize like this makes it possible for me to take this research significantly further, and we can start right away.' It has become harder to get hold of a Vici grant in recent years. This year, NWO has awarded grants to only 31 out of 236 scientists. In 2003, twenty percent of the proposals were selected.
The award-winning project from Thomma builds upon a discovery made in 2010. He proved at that time that a mould which infects tomato plants covers up its cell walls with certain proteins. These cell walls are made of chitin, a substance not found in plants. This would normally be a signal for the immune system of the tomato plants that an attack is being launched. However, the protein cover makes the chitin invisible and enables the mould to infect its host in this way.
Meanwhile, Thomma has learnt that this mechanism is not unique, but is common among many moulds, including moulds which can make humans and animals sick. His project examines which role the protein plays in other pairs of pathogenic mould and host. In addition, Thomma is curious if mould diseases can be combated in this way. The project will therefore have to be multidisciplinary in its approach, as in medical mycology.
'Moreover,' adds Thomma, 'I expect this to be the tip of the iceberg.' From the appearance of the protein, some moulds seem to have ten homologs, aka 'little brothers'. It is not logical that all of them have the task to conceal chitin. Thomma therefore thinks that each variant conceals a different 'molecular motif' which would expose the mould. But it can even be more complicated, he says enthusiastically: 'The mould has to defend itself too against pathogens; it might have made itself invisible to escape its enemies also.' Thanks to the Vici subsidy, Thomma thinks he will be able to find out more in the coming years.

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