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Great British bioscience pioneers – Professor Howard Atkinson

Great British bioscience pioneers – Professor Howard Atkinson - 4 August 2014. Copyright: Howard Atkinson
Highlights from: 20 years of bioscience
Copyright: Howard Atkinson
Professor Howard Atkinson. Copyright: Howard Atkinson

Continuing our series of articles on Great British bioscience pioneers, we take a look at the career of Professor Howard Atkinson, whose internationally renowned group at Leeds is working to develop nematode-resistant crops to feed a growing population.

How did your bioscience career first begin?

"I completed a PhD, followed by two years of post-doctoral work at Newcastle University. I really sought to enter a research field with practical applications for research progress. In 1972, I was appointed to a lectureship at the University of Leeds to specialise on plant parasitic nematodes, which can cause significant damage to plants and crops. I was later seconded to work with a small biotechnology company in the USA to support their in-house programme on nematode-resistant crops – generating my long-term interest in plant biotechnology for nematode control.

"Our group at Leeds, now led by Professor Urwin, works to improve understanding of plant parasitic nematodes at a fundamental level, seeking opportunities to use the knowledge gained to improve control. We have developed three biologically safe and resistant technologies to help combat parasitic nematodes, and have tested them in seven UK field trials. This project helped to develop the methodology to assess the environmental impact of new plants, which has gone on to underpin policy in the UK."

What are you working on now?

"A personal priority of mine is supporting global food security. Bananas and plantains are important in this respect as they are a vital food source for around 100M Africans, including very many low-income families.

The SARID team. Copyright: Howard Atkinson

"Nematodes commonly cause yield losses of around 50% to African plantains and cooking bananas. These crops are sterile and lack many resistance genes – slowing conventional breeding but favouring biosafe plant biotechnology as there is no risk of unwanted gene flow. We have recently demonstrated high-level control of nematodes on plantain, in a confined field trial in collaboration with Dr Leena Tripathi at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Kenya.

"In the UK, our emphasis is on eliminating the need for crop protection chemicals to control potato cyst nematodes to benefit growers, consumers and the UK environment. We are also looking at the possible impact of climate change on the UK pest status of plant parasitic nematodes, as well as the application of natural biofumigation compounds to control potato cyst nematodes alongside other pests. These compounds are produced by some plants including brassicas, and suppress certain soil-borne diseases when their leaves are chopped and incorporated into soil. This has the potential to dramatically benefit both organic and conventional crop production."

Copyright: Howard Atkinson
Taking soil samples for nematodes in Uganda. Copyright: Howard Atkinson

What advances have you seen in your chosen field in the last 20 years?

"One of the progressive discoveries I've seen centres on the gradual revealing of the complexity of nematode interactions with plants at a molecular level. This understanding has been underpinned by sequencing the genomes of several plant parasitic nematodes, in the hope of revealing new approaches for their control.

"The development of transgenic plants that are resistant to plant parasitic nematodes promises to replace environmentally hazardous pesticides with an environmentally benign technology.

"There is a growing demonstration that novel traits including nematode-resistance expressed in transgenic plants could support future food security in the developing world. Much of this work publicly funded and is independent of the sometimes unfairly criticised companies producing commercial crops such as soybean and maize."

Radopholus similis – a banana nematode. Copyright: Howard Atkinson

What are the 5 key bioscience milestones that you've been part of?

  • 1998 Demonstration that monoclonial antibodies could be obtained to characterise nematode secretions into plants.
  • 2002 First report that plant parasitic nematodes are subject to RNA interference. One application is to deliver the interfering RNA from the plant to provide resistance.
  • 2011 Revealing that a peptide that disrupts the nematode invasion of roots is transported from some of their chemical-detecting sensory organs (sensillae) to nerve cells.
  • 2012 Marked the end of several field trials establishing transgenic resistance to potato cyst nematodes without harm to non-target organisms
  • 2012 Generation of transgenic plantains in Africa with resistance to plant pathogenic nematodes

How has BBSRC supported you throughout your career?

"I have benefitted considerably throughout my career from BBSRC and its predecessor research councils, fundamentally supporting our laboratory. BBSRC has also helped build our research facilities and supported the development of successful international interactions in both India and China for example to produce nematode-resistant cotton. Over 20 research awards from BBSRC have funded most of our core research and the first phase of strategic applications – leading to granted patents and collaboration with industry." 

Tags: 20 years of bioscience food people pests pioneers feature