ABOUT DR SOPHIEN KAMOUN: Dr Kamoun received his B.S. degree from Pierre and Marie Curie University, Paris, France. He then attended the University of California at Davis, where he received his Ph.D. in Genetics in 1991. He then was a postdoctoral fellow at the NSF Center for Engineering Plants for Resistance Against Pathogens, UC Davis, and at the Department of Phytopathology, Wageningen University, Netherlands.
In 1998, Dr. Kamoun was appointed assistant professor of oomycete molecular genetics at the Ohio State University, Department of Plant Pathology, Wooster campus, and was promoted to the rank of associate professor in 2002 and professor in 2006.
He joined The Sainsbury Laboratory in 2007. He continues to exploit genomics resources to improve understanding of plant pathosystems, unravel novel processes and concepts in plant-microbe interactions, and devise original disease management strategies based on the gained knowledge.
Throughout his career, Dr. Kamoun made a number of significant contributions to the science of molecular plant pathology that have been described in over 110 journal articles. He pioneered the use of functional genomics strategies that link plant pathogen sequences to phenotypes and is credited with discovering several effector families from pathogenic oomycetes.
Dr. Kamoun has also led community efforts to sequence and analyse the genome of the Irish potato famine pathogen Phytophthora infestans and continues to be actively involved in a variety of pathogenomics projects. Dr. Kamoun received the American Phytopathological Society Syngenta Award in 2003, the Ohio State University Pomerene Teaching Award in 2004, the WE. Krauss Award for Excellence in Graduate Research Mentorship in 2006, and the Daiwa Adrian Prize in 2010.
1. How many people work at The Sainsbury Laboratory and from how far and wide do you recruit?
The Laboratory consists of five research groups with about 80 staff in total. Our scientists originate from over 25 countries. We recruit worldwide the best students, scientists and research leaders with little consideration of nationality. This diverse mix creates a highly creative and dynamic environment that contributes to our success.
The recent immigration cap and other limits on hiring non-EU scientists are problematic for us. Already the visa of one promising young Chinese scientist has been rejected by the Shanghai Consulate for unjustified reasons. This negatively impacts our ability to build links with emerging scientific powerhouses such as China.
2. How much synergy or opportunity for collaboration exists due to the world-class organisations assembled in one location at Norwich Research Park?
We do work closely with our Norwich Research Park partners, particularly the John Innes Centre, the new Genome Centre TGAC, and the University of East Anglia. The recent trend of making cross-institution appointments is already paying off. There are many exciting research projects involving scientists from different fields that would not be possible within a single institution. The future is bright and it is exciting to watch these collaborations develop and flourish.
3. Is the scope of your research in any way limited by funding constraints?
With more resources we could tackle more problems, particularly crop diseases relevant to developing countries. We are funded in significant part by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. The focus is on fostering a culture of scientific excellence and recruitment of top class scientists rather than detailed management of specific scientific programs.
Each of the research leaders has access to ‘core’ funds that they can use as they wish. The flexibility this funding provides enables us to rapidly take advantage of emerging opportunities that arise from new technologies and new knowledge. To remain competitive, it is important to be nimble and to be among the early users of new technologies.
4. Does the UK as a nation invest too little in scientific research with global implications?
The UK is a world leader in scientific research and must continue to invest in research with both local and global implications. It has been stated vehemently in recent months but yes science is vital to the UK economy (see http://www.scienceisvital.com). The decision by the government to protect science from budget cuts in the recent spending review is laudable. Still, although science has done relatively well, the flat budget and the impending cuts to the universities are likely to have a negative impact at a time when other countries are expanding their investments in science.
5. Can you describe some of the most exciting projects you are working on at present?
I am very excited about the translational programmes – programmes to help us translate research findings into new agricultural practices – that we initiated just two years ago under the umbrella ‘TSL+’. In a short time we have generated some promising leads and we are now in a much better position to exploit the applications of our basic science. As these programmes continue to develop, we are seeking to partner with industry to carry the results of our research to market.
Our close collaboration with the US-based 2Blades Foundation is also helping us deliver solutions to plant disease problems.
6. What would you say was the Laboratory’s crowning glory in research conducted to date?
We are very proud of the role the Laboratory played in the development of the field of epigenetics through the pioneering work of Sir David Baulcombe (now at Cambridge University).
It is remarkable how basic research on plant viruses has led to discoveries with such wide-reaching impact and consequences on human health and medicine. This is a great illustration of the ethos of the lab of focusing on the key basic questions and letting our scientists follow their instinct. The Laboratory has also contributed tremendously to our understanding of plant immunity and more recently to knowledge of virulence and evolution of plant pathogens.
7. How global is the impact your research has been able to effect?
Given the diversity of staff, our alumni form a broad network that extends to many corners of the world. Also, we actively collaborate with the international research community. More recently, we expanded our links with scientists in Asia, particularly Japan, Korea and China, and we also have a very productive collaboration with Brazilian researchers.
8. Is there a case for greater internationalisation of your scientific expertise for the benefit of humanity?
As I mentioned above, we could work more on crop disease problems that are specific to developing countries. These are too often neglected by funding agencies yet they directly impact world poverty and food security.
9. If you had a wish list, what additional resources would The Sainsbury Laboratory like to have?
A biological containment facility would allow us to study exotic pathogens that could potentially be introduced in this country. With the increase in world trade, we are seeing more and more invasive plant diseases emerging in the UK. It would be wise to proactively study and understand these potential threats. Also, such a facility would enable us to study tropical pathogens that are unlikely to become a major issue in the UK but are of importance to world agriculture.
10. Are we blinkered in this country on the potential value globally of GM crops?
Absolutely! Transgenic crops have rapidly become the basis for a multibillion pound industry. Sadly, the UK is not reaping much benefit from agricultural biotechnology even though a significant part of the science underpinning the industry was conducted in this country. This is a huge missed opportunity. We should also look beyond GM crops as new genetic methods for plant breeding continue to emerge.
Are we going to miss the business opportunities there too? The emerging technology of ‘genome editing’ allows precise manipulations of a crop genome that are similar in nature to the traditional breeding methods of irradiation and mutagenesis (classified as non-GM plant breeding).
It is important that we forge ahead with the practical benefits that can flow from the new technology. Developing these benefits offers the opportunity to win back control of the seeds for the crops to come; strengthening Britain and strengthening British agriculture.