Katerina, a young woman, in a white lab coat with the plants she is using to studying microbiota in soils

June 15, 2022, by Lexi Earl

Understanding plant-microbiota interactions: An interview with Katerina Velchova.

Katerina Velchova is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Centre for International Agriculture. Their research project is titled: Microbiome-root-shoot axis: A microbial approach for heavy metalloids toxicity in plant systems, and they are supervised by Dr Gabriel Castrillo.

Why did you decide to do a PhD? What were you doing before?

Previously I completed an undergraduate degree in Biotechnology at the University of Nottingham. As a part of an academic exchange programme, I went on a year abroad at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia (UNMC). This enhanced my interest in plant science and led me to obtain experience in projects looking at modifying plant systems for therapeutics and targeting plant toxicity challenges of leafy vegetables. In a collaborative project called “Industrial microalgae: Food, Fuel and Medicine. What’s next?”, I represented my team as a Young Scientist Speaker at the International Webinar on Plant Genomics and Plant Science, 2020. There I had the opportunity to meet and talk with people who were already pursuing careers in plant science, and it was inspiring. I wanted to know more about plants and their interactions with the environment and how they can be utilised for the unmet needs of the global population.

Why did you choose this particular PhD project?

There are a few things. Primarily, during my final year as an undergrad student, my project was about the microbiome-gut-brain axis in humans, which is similar to the microbiome-root-shoot axis in the plant. I find these similarities quite exciting as it provides the opportunity to explore host-microbiota interaction in a plant system, which is free from the ethical concerns when researching humans and animals. Secondly, the University of Nottingham is one of the top global universities with a fantastic student community and my PhD course is in collaboration with Rothamsted Research – one of the oldest agricultural research institutes and a world-leading institute, with emphasis on agricultural strategies to benefit farmers and the needs of the global population. I saw all this as an opportunity to work with world leading scientists in a student friendly environment and to challenge myself.

Tell us about your research. What do you study? Why is it important?

My research focuses on plant microbiota interactions. In natural environments plants encounter huge amounts of microbes during their lifetime and the way they interact can impact the plant’s development, nutrition, immune system and stress response, plant reproduction, also the plant’s ecosystem functioning. These interactions are very dynamic and less is known about their mechanisms. Yet, their importance is enormous including tackling food production challenges, environmental concerns and climate change, soil health and microbiome management for sustainable agriculture, and its impact on human health and nutrition.

Before achieving global impact, research is built in small but very significant steps and numerous collaborations. For instance, our lab discovered the first regulatory mechanism that allows coordination between microbiota and the root diffusion barriers in the endodermis, which controls the plant mineral nutrition homeostasis. In a nutshell, this work improves the understanding of how diffusion barriers in multicellular organisms integrate a microbial function to maintain mineral nutrient homeostasis along the microbiome-root-shoot axis in the plant. Following this discovery, the objective of my research is to identify other regulatory elements involved in this beneficial host-microbiota interaction, using Arabidopsis thaliana as a model organism.

Arabidopsis plants in a camber growth room

How do you explain your research to ordinary people?

The microbiome is a collection of a range of different microbiota such as bacteria, archaea, viruses, and fungi, that are naturally accumulated over a lifetime and live on and inside an organism, as well as in its surroundings. This microbial collection has been shown to be important for organisms’ overall health and well-being. There are many types of microbiomes such as animal and human microbiomes, but there are also soil and plant microbiomes. When it comes to the plant microbiome, usually, we would think that roots in the soil are surrounded by just dirt, or the plant leaves are just made of plant cells. However, it is more than that. There is an extremely high microbial diversity represented by more than one thousand species of microbiota spread across the plant system, forming a range of diverse relationships important for plant growth, health, stress resilience, development, yield capacity, and improving plant traits.  For instance, there is a group of bacteria species that can enhance plant growth and protect plants from disease and abiotic stresses through a wide variety of mechanisms such as those for enhancing growth or producing nutrients for the plant. My work is focused on understanding the plant-microbiota interaction mechanisms and how they happen at the micro levels of life.

How is your first year going? Any highlights?

The first year has been very dynamic. I quickly started my project, but I also started taking part in another project close to my area. Meanwhile, I was going to a few training sessions like LCQQQ MS training. Recently I gave a presentation for the science community in my lab highlighting the progress of my project. All these were really exciting to me and taught me resilience and patience. As a young scientist, I find it hard to wait for the results and one of the only downsides of working with plants is that they grow slowly.

Has undertaking a PhD been different from other degrees you have done? How so?

The PhD course is very specific and that makes it so special as an opportunity. It is very dynamic and it throws you into the real world of science from the very start. It gives you the opportunity to be part of real projects with real impact and that makes it so exciting. As this is a long project, PhD work usually requires a lot more collaboration when compared to a studentship or an undergraduate environment. Then if being organised was important before, now it is a must-have skill, as each step can be highly important for the progress of the project.

What have you learnt through your first PhD year?

One of the most exciting trainings was about LCQQQ MS or liquid chromatograph triple quadrupole mass spectrometer. This tool is mainly used in research and development for the detection of very small substances on the level of chemical compounds and molecules with a high degree of sensitivity and specificity. For plant science research this tool can be used to understand plant biochemistry. For example, to detect specific metabolites such a phytohormones which are particularly significant in the communication between the plant and the environment. In the context of the microbial community it is known that the plant-associated microbes live in the plant tissues. These can produce compounds which can impact plant development. An example is a secretion of ACC deaminase, which is released from bacteria species like Pseudomonas spp., Arthrobacter spp. and Bacillus spp. and others.

How do you cope with the pressure of doing a PhD?

Overall, I see PhD as a lifestyle requiring good work-life balance. It has been a dream to work in such a lab and to work with leading scientists in the field. This, however, can be stressful as everyone has achieved so much already and I am just starting out. Hence, for me, dealing with pressure means understanding my potential and limits, and taking rest. For instance, I go to the gym, or on a nature walk, I play badminton and sometimes I do day trips.

Anything else?

I am excited to learn more techniques and tools and to apply these to my project work. Now, I am looking forward to my ionome training, as ionome analysis forms a big part of my lab work and it will be great to know more about it. I am also looking forward to presenting my work at a conference, where I can meet other scientists and PhD students working in the field. As mentioned earlier, collaboration is a key, and I am excited to become part of the global science community.

Posted in Meet the Beacon