Brett Tyler, professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and at the Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science in Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has been awarded the 2008 Noel T. Keen award for research excellence in molecular plant pathology.

The annual award recognizes members of the American Phytopathological Society who have made outstanding contributions and demonstrated sustained excellence and leadership in molecular plant pathology research. Recipients are acknowledged for their significant and noteworthy advances in the understanding of the way plant pathogens interact with their hosts to cause disease at the molecular level.

Tyler’s research group identifies and characterizes the genes and biological mechanisms that enable Phytophthora pathogens to recognize and overcome the defense systems of their plant hosts. Plant pathogens from the genus Phytophthora cause destructive diseases in a large variety of crop plants and forest ecosystems. Phytophthora infestans was largely responsible for the Irish potato famine, Phytophthora ramorum is attacking trees and shrubs of coastal oak forests in California and the soybean pathogen Phytophthora sojae is causing serious losses to the United States soybean crop.

Tyler and colleagues are laying the foundation for uncovering the interplay between Phytophthora and host genes during infection at the whole-genome level in the hope of finding much needed ways to tackle Phytophthora pathogens and the diseases they cause.

Research areas include the comparative and functional genomics of oomycete plant pathogens, the molecular analysis of oomycete virulence proteins, the functional genomics of quantitative disease resistance and infection responses in plants, computational prediction of gene functions, and mathematical modeling of complex cellular responses. A team led by Tyler recently published a description of the genome sequences of the soybean pathogen Phytophthora sojae and the sudden oak death pathogen Phytophthora ramorum in the journal Science.*

Tyler has been a Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Cancer Fund fellow, Willie Commelin Scholten Foundation Visiting Chair of Phytopathology at Wageningen University in The Netherlands, a Fulbright Lecturer, and a National Science Foundation Distinguished Lecturer.

He is chair of the International Phytophthora Genome Initiative and Coordinator of the Oomycete Molecular Genetics Research Collaboration Network. Before joining the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute in 2002, Tyler was a faculty member in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis, for 14 years.

Noel T. Keen (1940–2002) made pioneering contributions to molecular plant pathology during a period when the study of disease mechanisms was transformed by the new tools of molecular genetics. Recipients of the Noel T. Keen Award receive a financial gift from a fund established through the American Phytopathological Society Foundation in honor and memory of Keen. Previous award winners include Alan Collmer of Cornell University in 2003, Brian Staskawicz of the University of California, Berkeley in 2004, Thomas Wolpert of Oregon State University in 2005, and Pierre de Wit of Wageningen University in 2006.

*Tyler BM, Tripathy S, Zhang XM et al. (53 authors) (2006) Phytophthora genome sequences uncover evolutionary origins and mechanisms of pathogenesis. Science 313: 1261-1266.

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