How plants communicate with Johnathan Dalzell


This week’s curator is Johnathan who is a senior lecturer in plant-parasite interactions, and former Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow within the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland. He studied zoology as an undergraduate, and molecular parasitology during his PhD, both at Queen’s University Belfast. He is now the Programme Director for Biochemistry, and teaches various aspects of plant and animal biology. He is an editor at several journals, has served on the British Society for Parasitology council, and his research is focused mainly on the interaction between plants and other organisms in the soil, primarily on plant — parasite interactions. This involves many different techniques and approaches, spanning basic molecular biology, plant transgenesis, metabolomics, transcriptomics, bioinformatics, and behavioural studies. Johnathan is an advocate for open publishing models, and preprinting. He is also an advocate for genetically engineered crops. Johnathan answered some questions about his work and life as a real scientist for us, here’s what he had to say.

Why/How did you end up in science?

I was always fascinated by the natural world as a child. I loved growing plants from seed, watching natural history documentaries, and reading about the world around me. In school, Biology was my favourite class — it always seemed to just make sense to me, in ways that the other sciences didn’t at the time. I studied Zoology at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), and it was the passion and enthusiasm of the academic staff there that convinced me to commit to this career path.

Why did you choose your current field/what keeps you there?

In the final year of the undergraduate programme at QUB, every student has the opportunity to select a research project and join a research lab within the school. I talked to a few members of staff about what was interesting to them and decided that I would work on aspects of the RNA interference (RNAi) pathway in plant parasitic nematodes, with Prof Aaron Maule. These nematodes are a huge problem to global agriculture, with best estimates placing their impact on crop yield anywhere between $80–157 billion US dollars each year. They are difficult to control, and the reality is, we don’t really have a good understanding of how they find and manipulate host plants. RNAi is a small RNA pathway that regulates gene expression, and offers us one of the very few tools available to study gene function in parasite species. I really enjoyed the experience of working in a research laboratory, with other undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers. The most surprising thing to me at that time was the discovery that science is fundamentally a *creative* exercise. The creative quality of asking new biological questions and designing experiments is one of my favourite aspects of the job!

I’m now a member of faculty at QUB, and I lead a research group that aims to understand how plants communicate with other organisms in the soil (including parasites of course). Plants are fascinating — sure, they are mostly sessile, but what they lack in mobility, they more than make up for in terms of physiological and morphological plasticity. Plants are fantastic biological subjects — the range of experimental tools available to study and manipulate them is a real perk.

Tell us about your work?

I’m particularly interested in the chemicals that plants release into the soil (root exudate), which attracts beneficial microflora and fauna, but which is also used by pathogens and parasites to find a new host plant. The plant needs to communicate with its allies using a sort of chemical dialogue, whilst the pathogens try to adapt, becoming progressively more fluent in this biochemical dialect. Essentially, we want to understand which plant genes contribute to the chemical composition of root exudate, and how these compounds alter organismal behaviour in the soil. Once we understand this, we can engineer rhizosphere interactions that benefit the plant, allowing us to grow more food from less land, using fewer pesticides.

Over recent years we have had the privilege of working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop recombinant soil microbes that interfere with plant parasite host-finding, we have also been studying the transcriptional basis (mRNA and non-coding RNA) of behavioural variation in different parasite populations (their diversity is mind blowing!), and we’re now looking at how aspects of climate change alter plant — rhizosphere interactions. Climate change is definitely something we need to be thinking about in the soil too. I really enjoy working with other research groups, and I’ve always been an advocate for complete transparency when it comes to interacting and sharing information. I’m fortunate to have met some really talented, and like-minded individuals during my travels, and I’m looking forward to sharing about how we work together with collaborators from California, to Kenya.

Generally speaking, this is what makes me and the team tick. We do however have an eclectic taste, and I’m looking forward to discussing some of the other research we are doing over the coming week — things like the neurobiological basis of behaviour, and lethal fighting in nematodes (yes, this is a thing)!

What is the broader impact of your research?

We rely on plants for food, fibre, shelter, and nutrition. Without plants, life as we know it would not be possible on Earth. Yet despite the fundamental importance of plants to sustaining life, our understanding of plant biology, and how plants interact with other organisms is far from complete. Humankind faces significant challenges in the near future, to improve crop yields using less land, and in the context of an increasingly volatile and warming climate. As international trade and movement of crops and seeds increase, pests and diseases can also spread, and pest ranges are altered by global warming.

We absolutely need a new generation of driven, talented and creative plant scientists. I’ll be doing my best to keep things ticking along until they arrive!

Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?

I really enjoy my role as an editor for ‘Frontiers for Young Minds’ ( This is a journal that presents research to a younger (but no less inquisitive or perceptive) audience, and actually engages young people within the review process. It is free to publish in (you can write short review articles, or repackage a recent paper to meet our scope). I think it is a fantastic initiative, and I am proud to be associated with it.

Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?

I’ve been playing football (soccer) at a *very amateur* level for years, but most of my free time is invested in my family. My wife and I have three children; two boys (8 & 5), and a girl (3). Most weekends we’re scattered across the country watching them play football or rugby. The boys have much more natural sporting ability than I ever had, so watching them play and have fun is probably my favourite thing to with any time I have.

How would you describe your ideal day off? (Scientists are people too!)

I love cold, bright mornings spent walking through some of the local forest parks or mountains. Northern Ireland is a really small country, but it packs a punch in terms of the landscape.

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