Plant pathology award for Professor Diane Saunders

The innovative and inspiring research of Professor Diane Saunders has been recognised with a major award by a leading society in the field of plant pathology.   

Diane is a group leader at the John Innes Centre and becomes the latest recipient of the British Society for Plant Pathology (BSPP) RKS Wood Prize  

The award celebrates excellence in the study of plant disease biology and its application in the protection of plants against pathogens. 

In making the award for 2024 the BSPP citation concludes: “Professor Saunders’s work has had a profound impact on the understanding of plant-pathogen interactions and agriculture. Her innovative research and dedication to mentoring young scientists make her a deserving recipient of the BSPP RKS Wood Prize, a recognition that will undoubtedly inspire future researchers to follow in her footsteps.” 

Diane’s research focuses on studying emerging plant pathogens that pose a significant threat to agriculture, with an emphasis on the “polio of agriculture” the wheat rust fungi.  

Notable achievements of the Saunders group include the development and application of pioneering techniques in pathogen surveillance, including the field pathogenomics and MARPLE diagnostics techniques for which she was awarded the BBSRC Innovator of the Year award in the International Category in 2019. 

Diane is also passionate about ensuring the innovations in disease diagnostics generated by her team are accessible for use in any location, irrespective of access to resources. For instance, Diane’s partnership with Dave Hodson at CIMMYT has enabled deployment of MARPLE diagnostics across East Africa and South Asia, providing (for the first time) capacity to diagnose the precise wheat rust strain infecting a farmer’s field in just two days from collecting samples, a process that used to take many months to complete 

Beyond enhancing disease diagnostics, Diane’s team have also used these innovative approaches to develop practical solutions for agriculture. This includes identifying wheat genes that are crucial for supporting infection of wheat by the rust fungi that her team have shown can be disrupted as new sources of resistance and can now be tested in breeding programmes. 

In making the award the BSPP cited Diane’s contribution in supporting the global deployment of MARPLE diagnostics. They also note her many other contributions to plant pathology, such as being instrumental in addressing several plant disease emergencies, including detecting and responding to the reemergence of wheat stem rust in the UK and Ireland and the identification of Ash dieback in the UK, as well as the first outbreak of wheat blast in Bangladesh. 

The award also recognises Diane’s dedication to public engagement and advocacy for promoting gender parity in wheat research through her initiation of the Rosalind Franklin Women in Wheat Champions mentoring programme, that supports early-career female wheat scientists in their career journeys. 

As the 2024 prize winner Diane will present a lecture on her team’s research and achievements at the BSPP Plant Pathology conference next year. 

“It is a huge honour to receive this award from the BSPP and I’m very much looking forward to sharing our research with fellow scientists at the BSPP conference next year,” Diane said.  

The RKS Wood Prize is named and awarded in honour of Professor RKS Wood to acknowledge his role in establishing the discipline of Physiological Plant Pathology.  

Previous winners from the Norwich Research Park include Professor Paul Nicholson, Professor Saskia Hogenhout from the John Innes Centre, and Professor Sophien Kamoun from The Sainsbury Laboratory.  

For more information about the RKS Wood Prize and to view past winners RKS Wood Prize – BSPP – The British Society for Plant Pathology  


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