Vincent Were is a postdoctoral researcher at The Sainsbury Laboratory at Norwich Research Park. Find out how his work on the pathogenic rice blast fungus, which devastates rice that would otherwise feed 60 million people each year, is helping to develop disease-resistant plants.

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.

Your research focuses on rice blast – what is it?

I work in Nick Talbot's research group at The Sainsbury Laboratory to develop plants that are resistant to the rice blast fungus (Magnaporthe oryzae) – a pathogen that can severely damage rice crops. The disease affects more than 50 species of grasses – many of which are important cereal crops. It was first observed on foxtail millet and rice plants in Asia but it can also affect wheat, barley, oats and finger millet, among others.

The disease is caused when a spore lands on a leaf. It forms a pressurised cell called an appressoria which it uses to puncture the surface of the leaf and infect the cell. The disease appears as spreading brown spots with grey centres that can rapidly destroy a plantation. In 24 hours, up to 10,000 spores are produced.

I have collaborated with researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa to collect more than 500 samples of the rice blast fungus. These were used to inoculate rice plants to see which rice cultivars carry resistance genes that give a good response to the pathogen. I use DNA sequencing to determine sets of genes involved in the disease process during plant-pathogen interaction.

Why is this research important?

The amount of rice destroyed by this fungus alone is enough to feed 60 million people globally every year. In East Africa, for example, people were used to eating root crops like sweet potato, cassava and maize meals. But as cities modernise rice is becoming the preference as it is easy to cook.

Pathogens are always evolving with the emergence of new clones that are more virulent, as we have seen with SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19. Another problem emerging from the same fungus is wheat blast, which was first observed in South America but has since devastated crops in Bangladesh and Zambia. So far, we haven't seen wheat blast in Northern Europe but if climactic conditions change to favour the fungus, it is going to be a big problem.

How do you conduct your research?

My project is focused on proteins that the fungus secretes called effectors. When we sequence the fungus, we are trying to understand how they modulate plant immunity by looking for genes that encode for these secreted proteins. The plant has evolved proteins within cells that bind to these effectors and initiate immunity and we use this knowledge to breed resistant plants.

Genetically modified foods are not yet accepted in many countries, so to introduce resistance we have to use conventional breeding by crossing farmers’ preferred varieties with resistant donor varieties. We then select plants with the traits we want and when farmers deploy this plant in the field, it will be resistant to the fungus but maintain desired traits. But as the fungus is always mutating, we need more than one resistant gene for it to be effective in the long term.

Eastern Daily Press: Vincent loves football and enjoys refereeing in his spare timeVincent loves football and enjoys refereeing in his spare time (Image: Vincent Were)

Why did you decide to pursue a career in science?

My earliest memory of plant diseases is of aspergillus and fusarium, which would affect crops of maize and beans on smallholder farms where I grew up in Kenya. As a kid, it was painful to see the harvest destroyed and my mother forced to throw food away. I was inspired to go into plant science to help smallholder farmers and give something back to the community.

I studied at the University of Nairobi for my first degree and then worked as a research assistant at the Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa Hub (BecA). I got a scholarship and studied at the University of Queensland, Australia and did my PhD in Biological Sciences at the University of Exeter. My supervisor from Kenya, Dr Jagger Harvey, saw this position on rice blast and brought it to my attention and I immediately felt it suited my interest and future plans.

What is the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?

It is a fantastic environment for collaboration. You cannot be an expert in everything. Like TSL group leader, Sophien Kamoun, says: “11 Lionel Messis cannot win a match.” It is always good when collaborators can add their expertise.

I am also interested in public engagement and how to express science in different ways. Earlier this year I participated in the Translating Science project in which researchers at Norwich Research Park collaborated with the National Centre for Writing. I was introduced to poet Heidi Williamson to work together on ‘It Comes Through the Air’ – a poem about my work on rice blast. Heidi saw things differently. She was interested in the art of the fungus and the plant: the cyclic patterns formed on the plate because of how light and circadian rhythms affect how the fungus grows or how rice plants smell – things that scientists don't focus on.

What do you get up to when you are not working?

When I’m not working, I'm either watching football, playing football or talking about football! I used to be a quick attacking midfielder but I can’t run as fast anymore, so I decided to become a referee. As an international person moving to a new place, it's always difficult to mingle with locals. But as a referee, it’s easy to meet people and there are some very talented players here in Norwich.

Vincent Were is a postdoctoral researcher at The Sainsbury Laboratory at Norwich Research Park. You can follow him on Twitter @vinniman