Dr Diane Saunders

Project Leader
Crop Genetics

As a Project Leader at the John Innes Centre my research group focuses on studying (re-) emerging plant pathogens that pose a significant threat to UK agriculture.

For instance, we have numerous projects studying the wheat yellow rust pathogen, Puccinia striiformis f. sp tritici that is a substantial threat to wheat production worldwide and more recently re-emerged as a major constraint on UK agriculture.

In one recent project, we pioneered a revolutionary genomics-based pathogen surveillance technique that uses the latest DNA sequencing technology to generate high-resolution data quickly for describing the diversity in a pathogen population directly from infected field samples. Using this new technique and in collaboration with NIAB in Cambridge, we uncovered a dramatic shift in the population of yellow rust in the UK in recent years, largely due to an influx of fungal spores from outside the country. This information is essential to help breeders to develop wheat varieties that are resistant to the wider range of yellow rust isolates that we now find in the field.

In our lab, we use an array of different approaches to study plant pathogens which improve our understanding of how pathogens cause disease, including;

  • Integrating molecular genetics
  • Microbiology
  • Plant pathology
  • Population genetics
  • Genomics
  • Data mining


We are especially interested in how pathogens adapt to changing environments such as new host varieties. This can be studied by characterizing and analysing the genes encoding pathogen effector proteins. Plant pathogens deliver effector proteins to their hosts to inhibit plant defence responses and promote parasitic colonization.

On certain plant varieties, effectors that act within the host cell can be recognised by plant proteins, encoded by resistance genes, which initiate defence responses.

Increasing our understanding of the population dynamics and the evolution rate of (re-) emerging plant pathogens may enhance the deployment of resistant plant varieties that take into account the pathogens’ diversity.

JIC welcomes UK's second AWARD fellow: Dr Rose Kigathi

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John Innes Centre scientist awarded prestigious five year European Research Council starting grant

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Field Pathogenomics: a defence against rust and other "Cereal Killers"

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Scientists close the gap on devastating cereal killer

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Recent Publications

Islam M. T., Croll D., Gladieux P., Soanes D. M., Persoons A., Bhattacharjee P., Hossain M. S., Gupta D. R., Rahman M. M., Mahboob M. G., Cook N., Salam M. U., Surovy M. Z., Bueno V., Maciel J. L., NhaniJúnior A., Castroagudín V. L., Reges J. T., Ceresini P. C., Ravel S., Kellner R., Fournier E., Tharreau D., Lebrun M. H., McDonald B. A., Stitt T., Swan D., Talbot N. J., Saunders D. G., Win J., Kamoun S. (2016)

Emergence of wheat blast in Bangladesh was caused by a South American lineage of Magnaporthe oryzae.

BMC Biology 14 p84

Publisher’s version: 10.1186/s12915-016-0309-7

Yoshida K., Saunders D. G. O., Mitsuoka C., Natsume S., Kosugi S., Saitoh H., Inoue Y., Chuma I., Tosa Y., Cano L., Kamoun S., Terauchi R. (2016)

Host specialization of the blast fungus Magnaporthe oryzae is associated with dynamic gain and loss of genes linked to transposable elements

BMC Genomics 17 p370

Publisher’s version: 10.1186/s12864-016-2690-6

Dobon A., Bunting D. C., Cabrera-Quio L. E., Uauy C., Saunders D. G. (2016)

The host-pathogen interaction between wheat and yellow rust induces temporally coordinated waves of gene expression.

BMC Genomics 17 p380

Publisher’s version: 10.1186/s12864-016-2684-4

Rallapalli G., Saunders D. G. O., Edwards A., Lugo C., Clavijo B., Corpas M., Swarbreck D., Clark M., Downie A., Kamoun S., Maclean D. (2015)

Cutting edge: Lessons from Fraxinus, a crowd-sourced citizen science game in genomics

eLIFE n/a pn/a

Publisher’s version: 10.7554/eLife.07460.001#sthash.Y

Hubbard A., Lewis C. M., Yoshida K., Ramirez Gonzalez R., de Vallavieille-Pope C., Thomas J., Kamoun S., Bayles R., Uauy C., Saunders D. G. (2015)

Field pathogenomics reveals the emergence of a diverse wheat yellow rust population.

Genome Biology 16 p23

Publisher’s version: 10.1186/s13059-015-0590-8

View All

Diane Saunders


For media enquiries, contact the John Innes Centre communications team on jic.communications@jic.ac.uk or call 01603 450962

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