Abstract

Sheng Yang He received his BS and MS degrees from Zhejiang (Agricultural) University in 1982 and 1985, respectively, and a PhD degree in Plant Pathology from Cornell University in 1991. He started his faculty career in 1993 in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Kentucky. In 1995, he moved to the Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratory at Michigan State University and rose through the ranks to Full Professor. He is currently a University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University and an Investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences in 2015. What drew you to biology, particularly to the field of plant–microbe interactions? It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific experience that sparked my interest in biology. In fact, as a child growing up in a rural village in China, I was generally more interested in how tractors worked. However, even as a child, ‘crop protection’ was a familiar concept. I understood that in many ways my village relied on agriculture, and that protecting our crops from attack was no trivial matter. The distinct smell of pesticide from the rice fields and the removal of cotton bollworm larvae from shoulder-tall cotton plants by hand are memories I’ve carried with me my whole life. I think these early experiences, and the appreciation I had regarding the importance of agriculture in rural communities, may have had something to do with my interest in plant science later on. I came to the US to pursue a PhD degree in the late 1980s. Coming from a place where molecular biology was mostly just a scientific term found in textbooks, I was quickly mesmerized by the intensive research efforts being poured into cloning various bacterial genes involved in plant–pathogen interactions. In particular, I was intrigued by the mysterious nature of bacterial ‘hrp’ genes (now called ‘type III protein secretion’ genes) and ‘avr’ genes (now called ‘effector’ genes). These genes were a frequent topic of discussion throughout my PhD training in Alan Collmer’s laboratory at the University of Maryland, and then at Cornell University. In fact, the desire to understand the enigmatic functions of these genes led me, and many others, deep into the fascinating field of plant–microbe interactions. Was there a key decision that made a difference in your scientific career? Yes. As I was transitioning out of my postdoc training and searching for a faculty position in the early 1990s, I paid close attention to the development of the Arabidopsis–Pseudomonas syringae interaction as a model pathosystem in the laboratories of Fred Ausubel, Brian Staskawicz, and Jeff Dangl. At the time, these labs were using this model to ask the question, “what Arabidopsis genes are involved in resistance to pathogens?” I realized that there was very little effort being put into answering a related but opposing question: why are plants susceptible to pathogens? The latter question seemed interesting and important (to me). Furthermore, the fact that few people, if any, were paying attention to the latter question made it a nice niche for a new research group, like mine. I was also very fortunate to become a faculty member in the Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratory at Michigan State University, a premier (and wonderful) plant research institute in the US. In retrospect, focusing on an understudied but noteworthy topic — the molecular basis of plant disease susceptibility — was probably the most important decision I made for my career. I am very glad that disease susceptibility is now a ‘hot topic’ in the plant sciences, thanks to the efforts of many groups. But your research also ventures broadly into the topics of stomata, jasmonate signaling and climate effects. How did that happen? Well, these topics actually ‘ventured’ into my lab. In part, this happened due to our interest in a fascinating bacterial toxin called coronatine, which structurally mimics the plant hormone jasmonate. We spent a lot of time figuring out what coronatine does to plants, and along the way we contributed to the current knowledge of the immune functions of stomata and jasmonate signal transduction. I think this is a good example of how studying pathogenesis can reveal something interesting about the fundamental cellular processes of a host. More recently, we have indeed turned our attention to understanding how environmental conditions (such as the climate and microbiota) influence plant–pathogen interactions. I believe this is a timely transition for my group, and an important topic. Looking ahead, I would bet there is something interesting to be found in these research areas. Do you have any career advice for graduate students and postdocs? Relative to when I was a graduate student, students and postdocs nowadays are much more well-informed about the various career paths that are available to them. A scientific career is not for everyone, but I think that those who wish to pursue it need to have a curious and organized mind, an unwavering inner drive, and a habit of extracting positive clues from failed experiments. Graduate school and postdoc years are some of the happiest times for scientists, as there are relatively few distractions. In addition to life in the lab, one should fully explore other dimensions of life. I can speak on behalf of many colleagues when I say that being a scientist is one of the best careers one can have. A scientific career can be demanding, but you are surrounded by many intelligent people (young and old) who share a passion for making new discoveries that could fuel the innovations of tomorrow. What do you think will be the next ‘big thing’ in plant–microbe interactions? As scientists, we are naturally fascinated by the most basic principles underlying how organisms work, and how they interact with the environment. However, current scientific research touches on only a small fraction of living organisms. The vast majority of organisms, including some of the most devastating pathogens, are not even culturable. I imagine that some of the most spectacular future discoveries may come from expanding our research to new biological systems. Of course, it would also be wonderful if some of the current knowledge of plant–microbe interactions could be translated to the field, and perhaps lead to the development of high-performance crops able to cope with a changing global climate. While there have been some exciting developments in this direction, substantially more effort would be required to make this idea a reality. If you had not made it as a scientist, what would you have become? Actually, my dad had a ‘career plan’ for me when I was growing up — to be a carpenter in the village. I cannot get into all of the details here, so I’ll be brief. Before my senior year of high school, circumstances indicated that I would need to develop some technical skills in order to make a better living than that of a poor farmer. I spent the summer months practicing drawing (which would be needed for painting furniture) and shaping wood pieces (I have a scarred finger to prove this). I probably could have become a reasonably skilled carpenter, as I was quite seriously interested in that type of work for a while. However, my dad (and probably the whole village) was very happy when I, along with four other classmates (out of 80 students), were lucky enough to be admitted to a college/university following a nationwide entrance exam. That led me to where I am today. Sometimes life takes its own path.

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