Dr. Corina Vlot-Schuster

Signals for the ­Protection of Plants

Corina Vlot-Schuster discovered her fascination with plant immune defense early in her career. During her time at the Boyce Thompson Institute in the U.S. and at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Cologne, she explored systemic acquired resistance in Arabidopsis thaliana, thale cress. This model plant is also well established at Helmholtz Zentrum München. When she was offered the opportunity to lead the junior research group “Inducible Resistance Signaling” at the Institute of Biochemical Plant Pathology, Vlot-Schuster did not hesitate to accept.

Corina Vlot-Schuster wants to use the natural defense mechanisms of plants for the environmentally friendly production of food crops. Her focus is on signal substances that are involved in systemic acquired resistance (SAR), which she explores in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana (image) and in barley. Source: HMGU

Corina Vlot-Schuster‘s area of research is a special form of plant defense called systemic acquired resistance (SAR). Although plants do not produce any antibodies, they can react to locally limited attacks of pathogens with a kind of long-term immunity: Cells die off around the affected area and prevent the spread of the infection. At the same time signal substances are emitted that lead to an increase of resistance in the entire plant and protect against a wide range of pathogens.

This mechanism has been extensively studied in thale cress. Corina Vlot-Schuster showed that SAR also protects barley from invading pests such as bacteria. Together with her six-member team, the Dutch-born scientist wants to characterize the involved signaling molecules in this agriculturally important grain plant and to protect this and other crops against pests in the future with the plant’s natural defense substances. “SAR is very attractive for use in crop agriculture. Since the plant hardly uses resources for this kind of defense, the crop yield is not adversely affected,” explains Vlot-Schuster.

To identify key molecules that are responsible for triggering the mechanism, the plant physiologist is supported by experts from other fields. For the characterization of the signal molecules in barley, she benefited from the work of bioinformaticians in the Research Unit Genome and Systems Biology of Plants: In 2012 they deciphered the entire barley genome. At Helmholtz Zentrum München Vlot-Schuster conducts her research quasi next door to these colleagues: “We are on equal footing, and our collaboration is uncomplicated. We work hand in hand and try to solve problems together.”

This type of collaboration also has a profound effect on her team. Vlot-Schuster selected her staff based on scientific criteria, but also on their social competence. “We discuss all decisions together,” she says. She expects from her team members that they assume responsibility and work independently. Vlot-Schuster: “If you want to be successful in implementing your projects later on, these are core competences.”

The biologist works in a challenging academic environment. “It has become more difficult to publish results in high-quality, prestigious journals“, she observed – a development that she finds also has positive aspects: “You set your own bar higher and higher, and this increases the quality of the research.”

In addition to academic success, however, Corina Vlot-Schuster is also pursuing another objective: “It has always been important to me that my research can also be applied to protect the environment and to produce potentially healthier foods.”