Dr. Sabine Banniza (PhD)
Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program (SRP) Chair in Pulse Crop Pathology
MOLECULAR WARFARE: BATTLING ENEMIES INVISIBLE TO THE NAKED EYE
(by Ashleigh Mattern)
Professor Sabine Banniza, pulse pathologist at the Crop Development Centre, is in a battle against anthracnose, a foliar disease in lentils.
Her group has sequenced the genome of the fungus that causes the disease and researched how the molecules in the pathogens and the host plants interact with each other. “We’ve done quite a bit of research into this little warfare at the molecular level,” Banniza said. “When pathogens interact with the host plants, they are exposed to molecules from each other, which determine whether the plant will be susceptible and eventually develop symptoms or whether the plant actually manages to defend itself.”
There are only two groups worldwide that are working in this area, and Banniza says the CDC has the strongest group. She is not aware of any other group internationally that has done such detailed work on this pathogen, even though it’s an important issue in the United States, especially in the northern states where they grow lentils.
Banniza compares her work to the fight against illnesses like COVID-19: One of the reasons it’s so difficult to fight a virus is that it keeps evolving, and she has the same challenges in her work. “It’s a constant race with pathogens and you hope to be ahead with whatever resistance you have.”
Anthracnose has made headlines again recently because the causal pathogen is becoming insensitive to certain fungicides, so resistant varieties are needed more than ever, Banniza said.
‘IT ALL HAPPENS AT THE MOLECULAR LEVEL’
Also like a virus, her adversaries are invisible to the naked eye. It was that challenging aspect of the plant pathology that first attracted her to the field. Insects you can see and count, but diseases are caused by microorganisms like fungi, bacteria, or viruses she said. “I’m sort of attracted to small things in life because it all happens at the microscopic level.”
Banniza grew up in northwest Germany in the lower Rhineland, a flat, empty landscape with no hills, “like Saskatchewan on a small scale,” she said. She did an undergraduate degree in horticulture, where she first learned about pests and diseases, then moved to the U.K. to do her Masters degree in integrated pest and disease management.
“I understood very quickly that pests and diseases, and in particular diseases, are a major impediment to food production,” she said. “They really cause a lot of damage to crops and it’s very difficult for farmers to deal with them.”
She did her PhD in plant pathology and worked as a plant pathologist in the U.K. before coming to the University of Saskatchewan for a postdoctoral position in plant pathology.
SASK. FARMERS OPEN TO THE SCIENCE
Having worked in many countries, Banniza says one of the things she particularly enjoys about working in Saskatchewan with the CDC is the close working relationship with farmers and producers. She said in Europe and the U.K., farmers were more skeptical of scientists.
“There is always this thinking that it’s all too abstract, too theoretical to have any meaning in the field,” she said. “When I moved here to Saskatchewan, I always found farmers much more open and interested in science compared to what I’d experienced before.”
Those good relationships have made her work more enjoyable, and she says extension work where she goes out to talk to farmers is a fun part of her job.
“If I talk to colleagues in other countries, [extension work] is not part of their job, so they are pretty much detached from the field,” she said. “It’s always been important to CDC and the people who work at CDC to be out there listening and ensuring what we do have some impact.”
Another disease impacting farmers right now is Aphanomyces euteiches, a plant pathogen responsible for Aphanomyces root rot, which was first confirmed in the province by Banniza and colleagues in 2013.
She has been working closely with Dr. Tom Warkentin (PhD) at the CDC to breed for resistance, and they expect to have a variety ready to release soon.
“Aphanomyces root rot is a very, very serious disease of pea and lentil, the two largest pulse crops in Saskatchewan,” she said. “It’s very difficult to control; farmers don’t have many if any tools other than long rotations without pea and lentil.”