Meet the scientist who moved from California to Norwich to prevent plant disease

Scientist standing inside a laboratory surrounded by scientific equipment

Professor Wenbo Ma is senior group leader at The Sainsbury Laboratory at Norwich Research Park - Credit: Phil Robinson

Scientists at The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) at Norwich Research Park are working to end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment and boost economic development. Professor Wenbo Ma, senior group leader at TSL, is using cutting-edge research to help develop resistance to diseases that are destroying potato crops, citrus harvests and even Christmas trees. 

Group of scientists standing outside on concrete steps of research park

Wenbo relocated from California to Norwich Research Park during the pandemic, bringing her entire laboratory and team with her - Credit: Phil Robinson

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.

What does your role as senior group leader involve? 

I lead a team of students, post-doctoral researchers and staff scientists making discoveries on how to increase crop yields and improve plant health by enhancing their resistance to pathogens. Pathogens are infectious agents that damage plant and animal hosts using effectors as weapons. We use a combination of biochemistry, molecular biology, cell biology and genome analysis to understand how the effectors facilitate disease development. 

Can you explain what effectors are? 

Effectors are virulence proteins that are instrumental in enabling pathogens to cause disease. They are the reason why pathogens can overwhelm a host’s immunity, take nutrients from the host and eventually kill them. Once we find out how effectors help pathogens exploit the host, we can use that knowledge to inhibit their activity and therefore improve plant health. This will increase food production and feed millions of mouths. 

Why is your work important?  

Effectors evolve very quickly, so we need to understand how they evolve to win the tug-of-war with plants and explore new hosts so that our resistance strategies can be more sustainable. As we have learned with the flu and more recently with Covid-19, pathogens change all the time. Effectors are produced by almost all pathogens – viruses, bacteria, fungi, insects, nematodes – so we are uncovering the fundamentals of how disease occurs.  

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For example, there are many damaging diseases caused by Phytophthora – a pathogen that caused the Great Irish Famine. One species of it affects potatoes, another affects soybeans, one causes disease in oak and another in Christmas trees. Imagine not being able to enjoy those wonderful trees in our households at this time of year! 

It’s so important to understand how pathogens evolve so that we can predict or anticipate changes and generate effective strategies to prevent them.  

What made you follow this career path? 

I was an undergraduate student at Beijing Normal University training to be a biology teacher when I was offered a research opportunity at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. My supervisor there, Professor Huarong Tan, actually got his PhD from the University of East Anglia (UEA) while doing research at the John Innes Centre

I would like to offer young people a similar opportunity. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing students and post-doctoral researchers succeeding in their careers and I feel very proud that I have been able to support their growth as scientists. 

Woman standing on a rock face at Yosemite National Park with mountains in the background

"I love natural landscapes," says Wenbo Ma, pictured at Yosemite National Park in California - Credit: Wenbo Ma

How did you end up working here in Norwich? 

I was working at the University of California Riverside when TSL approached me about the role as senior group leader. TSL is at the frontier of plant-microbe interaction research and its reputation as a leading institute that solves the most pressing scientific questions in plant disease was very attractive. 

My arrival was delayed because of Covid-19, but in September we were able to relocate the entire programme – including research materials and four team members – across the Atlantic! 

What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park? 

Norwich Research Park is a unique environment. There are multiple institutions located near to one another with shared equipment and resources. The facilities are state-of-the-art, so the relocation from California allows us to do things we were not able to do before. Also, the collaborative spirit is very much encouraged, which is fantastic.  

Since I arrived here, I have had opportunities to work with colleagues at the John Innes Centre and UEA. My group is also looking forward to interacting with some of the agri-tech companies on the Park.  

What do you get up to when you are not working? 

I like to spend time with my husband and two kids. My seventeen-year-old son is still in California finishing high school and my eleven-year-old daughter is studying at Norwich School. I enjoy travelling, seeing and experiencing different cultures and trying different cuisines. The Chinese are known to be very adventurous with food and I am no exception!  

I also love natural landscapes and am planning to explore more of the Norfolk coast on trails and hikes. I grew up watching football, so I really want to get along to Carrow Road to watch Norwich City! 

Professor Wenbo Ma is senior group leader at The Sainsbury Laboratory at Norwich Research Park. You can follow her on Twitter @wenboEffector 

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