Diane Saunders

Professor Diane Suanders is the Head of the Department and Group Leader Delivering Sustainable Wheat (DSW), and Advancing Plant Health (APH). 

Diane’s research focuses on (re-)emerging plant pathogens that pose a significant threat to agriculture.

She has a particular interest in the wheat rust pathogens, which are known as the “polio of agriculture” due to the threat they pose to wheat production worldwide. This includes numerous projects studying the wheat yellow rust pathogen, Puccinia striiformis f.sp tritici that recently re-emerged as a major constraint on UK agriculture.

In Diane’s lab, they use an array of different approaches to study plant pathogens to improve our understanding of how pathogens cause disease. Current projects include:

  • Developing new, innovative genomics-based tools to track and study pathogen dispersal on a national and international scale
  • Understanding how pathogens evolve to evade host recognition and fungicide control
  • Developing a better understanding of how specific host plants respond to pathogen invasion
  • Unravelling the role of wild plants in the life cycle of the wheat rust pathogens in the UK

In one recent project, the group pioneered a revolutionary genomics-based pathogen surveillance technique called ‘field pathogenomics’ that uses the latest DNA sequencing technology to generate high-resolution data quickly for describing the diversity in a pathogen population directly from infected field samples. This information is essential to help breeders to develop wheat varieties that are resistant to the wider range of yellow rust isolates that they now find in the field.

Through international collaboration with CIMMYT and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research this technique has been further developed into a portable platform called Mobile And Real-time PLant disEase (MARPLE) diagnostics that is allowing scientists in Ethiopia to track the spread of individual strains of wheat yellow rust in near real-time. This in turn enables stakeholders to make immediate decisions regarding disease management within the current growing season.

Diane’s fundamental research has provided new knowledge on how pathogens successfully invade susceptible plant hosts and influence a host plant’ s circuitry during infection. For instance, developing a framework for a better understanding of how wheat yellow rust causes disease by uncovering new information on how the pathogen suppresses the expression of defence components in wheat to successfully colonise a susceptible host.

Diane is also passionate about training the next-generation of plant scientists and runs training courses and workshops internationally (particularly in bioinformatics) to empower early-career researchers in regions where tuition is limited.