Guest Blog from Khumbuzile Bophela

Destiny colliding with passion – Khumbuzile visits @psuPPEM @Penn State @Buckhout_Bull

I spent three months on a research visit to Pennsylvania State University, USA, from May to August 2017. The costs of my visit were paid through a combination of grants, namely, IMG_4875the NRF travel grant, NRF incentive funding of my primary advisor at the University of Pretoria and the funding allocated for the bilateral agreement between the University of Pretoria and the department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology at Pennsylvania State University. The research I undertook at the PPEM department was as follows.

According to literature, it is unclear if Pseudomonas syringae pathovars in genomospecies 1 (Phylogenetic group 2) are distinct or if they have the same host range and are thus synonymous. During my visit to Penn State University, I undertook a number of host range tests using the pathotypes in genomospecies 1 to help clarify the pathovar classification used for this group. Preliminary results suggest that there is a potential new pathotype of P. syringae genomospecies 1 causing wart symptoms on pumpkin in Mount Vernon, western WA. This is a first report of the new pathovar in Washington State and a first report of the wart symptom as a symptom of pumpkin fruits in the US.

Concurrently, I spent time working to understand the biology of Pseudomonas viridiflava, genomospecies 6. Pseudomonas viridiflava is a distinct clade in the P. syringae species complex and one of the few formerly described genomospecies in this complex. P. viridiflava undergoes spontaneous phase variation, in that we typically observe two colony morphology types on synthetic media. The two colony variants are namely, “non-mucoid,” which is translucent, flat with matt surfaces and “mucoid,” which is opaque, convex with a shiny surface. Observations from a separate study showed that the “non-mucoid” colony variants of P. viridiflava were non-pathogenic on beans and kiwifruit seedlings and were antibiotic resistant. In contrast, the “mucoid” colony variants were pathogenic on the above-mentioned hosts but lacked the antibiotic resistance. There appeared to be an inverse correlation between the pathogenicity of colony phase variant and antibiotic resistance.

During my visit, I undertook three professional development courses, namely, “How to be my own best Mentor,” Crucial Conversations, both presented by Dr. Carolee Bull, img_5761.jpgDepartment head of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology and host advisor at Penn State, and the “2017 PSU Bootcamp on reproducible research”, a week long workshop organized by the Computation, Bioinformatics and Statistics Predoctoral Training Program at Penn State. Furthermore, I gave a poster presentation titled: “Pseudomonas viridiflava: a potential emerging pathogen associated with bacterial canker of plum trees in the Western Cape, South Africa,” at the American Phytopathological Society annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas.

Overall, my visit to Penn State and State College was enriching for both my personal growth and my professional development. I got the privilege of staying in one of the img_5597.jpghousing co-ops in State College, named the Co.space”, a home for change-makers. I had an opportunity to engage with students and early career professionals in different career paths to mine. It was an amazing and fulfilling experience to be part of a home that strives on the value of selflessly serving its community to bring about a positive change. I definitely recommend paying Co.space a visit when in State College; it is a life-changing living experience.

Moreover, the staff and students at the Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology (PPEM) department were very welcoming and I instantly felt at home. As a member of IMG_5781the Bull Penn lab, I was constantly motivated and intellectually stimulated; the atmosphere in the lab was conducive for learning and fast paced. I got the opportunity to learn different lab techniques I was not exposed to or had limited exposure at my home institution, such as performing rep-PCR and medium scale host inoculation trials from start to finish. I had the privilege of having the said skills reinforced as I had to do the multiple times. My expectations were certainly exceeded and it was encouraging to learn that my presence also made a positive impact to the department. I certainly plan on returning to the PPEM department in future to pursue post-doctoral training.

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