Molecular Plant Sciences

Blog - A Spotlight on Dr Beatriz Orosa

PhD student Lindsay Williams, interviewed Dr. Bea Orosa, a newly appointed Chancellor’s Fellow in IMPS, on her career path and research into plant immune responses.

Beatriz Orosa

What is your background and how did you end up here at the Institute of Molecular Plant Science in Edinburgh?

“I grew up in a rural area so I was always in touch with nature. As a teenager protecting the environment and wildlife became really important to me. I considered joining Greenpeace as an activist, but I thought I could do more if I studied Biology. So, I studied Biology at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. There I developed my interest in molecular biology and biochemistry; I became really fascinated by how cells communicate and are able to sense the environment and respond to it – I didn’t realize it then, but it was obvious that I was going to end up in science! After my undergraduate degree, I moved to the Universitat Autònoma in Barcelona for a PhD in plant science. During my PhD, I studied how plants use calcium as a molecular signal to respond to fungi, and how this initial perception and calcium signalling activates the immune response. Although I really enjoyed my PhD, running crazy experiments during the day and going for drinks at night was a challenging experience. So towards the end, I took a break, during which I worked in biomedicine back in Santiago, where I focused in human auto-immune diseases. My time in biomedicine was quite successful, and helped me recover my love for science, so I decided to finish my PhD and continue my career in plant sciences.

During my studies, I became particularly interested in how proteins are modified after they have been made by the cell, these are called post-translational modifications (PTMs). In response to environmental cues, these protein modifications provide a fast and easily reversible modulation of protein function, which regulates the intensity and amplitude of the stress response. I found this topic very intriguing, so I applied for a post-doc at the University of Durham where I worked on a type of PTM called SUMOylation and studied how plants add SUMO to proteins to regulate of stress responses. My increasing interest in plant immune responses led me to Prof. Steven Spoel’s group here at IMPS, where I have been working on another PTM called ubiquitination, and how plants use the ubiquitin code to regulate the immune response.”

What was your motivation for the fellowship you have, and what are you going to do with this fellowship?

“At the end of my post-doc here in Edinburgh I was ready to start my own lab, and the Chancellor’s Fellowship was a fantastic opportunity to do so. The fellowship will allow me to develop my own line of research, and it provides support and mentoring which will help me grow as a scientist. IMPS is the best possible place to start my lab, I already have marvellous collaborators here in the department and across the university, such as Prof Steven Spoel, Prof Lynne Regan, Dr Neil Havis or Dr Francois Dussart. My research fits well with the department's strategic plan and future goals, and we have fantastic growth facilities for crops, even suitable for speed breeding.

I believe that our expanding knowledge of PTMs is a previously untapped resource that can be exploited to enhance plant resistance against diseases. My lab will use the ubiquitin system to enhance resistance in crops, starting with barley. Plants use post-translational modifications, in this case ubiquitination, as a signal pathway to regulate immune responses against pathogens. Cells are able to degrade proteins they do not need, and they use ubiquitination as a specific signal to do it. I want to use the ubiquitin pathway that plants already have to degrade specific proteins, and repurpose it to target pathogen proteins for degradation. Plants are normally able to elicit protective responses against pathogens, however many pathogens find a way to overcome this defence responses by using proteins that block the plant immune response.  If we are able to target those proteins for degradation, plants will be able to resist the pathogen again.”

Bea Orosa barley

Why are you working on barley in particular?

“Barley is the 4th largest crop in the EU and 2nd in the UK, so it has a lot of value. It is also a diploid species with a small genome, which makes it a good crop model species. I have established a fantastic collaboration with SRUC (which is next door), where we are analysing the activation of the Ubiquitin pathway in field trails. The Barley Hub is also located in Scotland and, as a member, I have access to different cultivars, facilities and collaborations.”

What are you most excited to find out during your fellowship?

“Exploring the immune system in barley will be really exciting, but I am really looking forward to understanding and synthetically modifying E3 ligases (the enzymes that stick ubiquitin to proteins). If we can do it, we will open a new area of research with so much potential, not only for targeting the effectors, but also any other protein of interest, allowing us to manipulate plant pathways and processes.”

Will your new lab be establishing any collaborations?

“On top of the fantastic researchers in IMPS, I have started to collaborate with SRUC; through this collaboration I have access to barley field trials, and they are very interested in working with the pathogen that I am using: Puccinia, a fungal pathogen that has not been extensively studied but due to climatic change, is becoming an important pathogen with increasingly higher impact on barley production. I am also collaborating with Lynne Regan in synthetic biology to modify E3 ligases to target new proteins of interest. I am also working with barley hub researchers, which is a fantastic network with loads of expertise in many areas of barley research. I really enjoy working with others, so I hope this list will grow very fast!”

What advice would you have for a student interested in molecular plant biology?

“Plants are the best, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! It is amazing how these sessile organisms are able to perceive and respond to stresses, and there is so much for us to learn! It is an exciting field of research with so many opportunities, so try to find that bit that you find really interesting and start asking questions!”