Boris A. Vinatzer

Professor and Interim Department Head

Program Focus

The overall goal of my research is to unravel how bacteria adapt to different environments and to take advantage of what we learn to improve our ability to control crop diseases in a way that benefits farmers, consumer, and the environment alike.

Current Projects

Research on Airborne Ice Nucleating Species (RAINS)

Microorganisms are abundant in the atmosphere and may play an important role in controlling cloud development, cloud chemistry and ultimately weather patterns. They do this primarily by producing proteins that catalyze the formation (nucleation) of ice crystals at significantly warmer temperatures than would normally be required for ice formation (-2°C vs. -36°C). Despite the atmosphere’s fundamental role in their dispersal, the abundance, diversity and flux of microorganisms in the atmosphere remain largely unknown. The potential of ice-nucleating microorganisms to significantly impact meteorology and promote microbial dispersal during precipitation events motivates this research. The RAINS project will sample rain, snow and air samples at ground level, and in the lower atmosphere using remote-controlled aircraft. The project will: (1) characterize microbial taxonomic diversity, including in precipitation that occurred between 1794 AD and present, and which is preserved in glacial ice; (2) determine the genetic diversity of microbial assemblages and of individual ice nucleating bacteria and (3) examine the functional diversity with respect to the role of precipitation and biological ice nucleation on patterns of microbial distribution. The work will also determine which microbes carried to the Earth-s surface via precipitation present possible inoculum sources for diseases that impact humans, domestic animals, and plants. This is an NSF-funded project in collaboration with David Schmale (Virginia Tech), Cindy Morris (INRA France), Brent Christner (Louisiana State University), and Carolyn Weber (Idaho State University).

Leveraging Pathogen Diversity for Gaining Insights into Molecular Plant – Microbe Interactions

Plants are exposed to many pathogens and consequently evolved a sophisticated immune system. On the other hand, pathogens evolved sophisticated mechanisms to overcome the plant immune system. In this project, the investigators will take advantage of genetic diversity in pathogen populations and in crop plants to identify pathogen genes and plant genes that determine the outcome of plant – pathogen interactions. These genes can be expected to provide new avenues towards novel approaches in crop disease prevention and control. The project will also offer multiple opportunities for training students in an interdisciplinary and international context.

The investigators previously gained new insights into molecular plant – microbe interactions by comparing strains of the tomato pathogen Pseudomonas syringae pv. tomato (Pto) with each other. In particular, they identified the pathogen-associated molecular pattern (PAMP) flgII, which is an epitope within the FliC protein and which triggers an immune response in tomato and other Solanaceae. To identify additional PAMPs, an international strain collection of Pto and of its close relatives will be expanded in the current project by isolating bacteria from rain, surface water, and crops. Genome sequencing and population genomic analyses will be performed. Pathogen emergence, spread, and crop adaptation will be investigated and new PAMPs and other genes involved in pathogen - plant interaction will be predicted based on signatures of natural selection. Candidate genes will then be tested for their role in pathogen - plant interaction using biochemical and genetic approaches. Such approaches will also be used to identify the tomato receptor of the previously characterized PAMP flgII and, possibly, tomato receptors of other PAMPs that may be identified in the current project.

Education

  • Ph.D., Cellular and Molecular Biotechnology, University of Bologna, Italy (2000)
  • M.S. and B.S., Agricultural Sciences, University of Bologna, Italy (1995)

Experience

  • June 2016 - present: Professor, Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA
  • October 2015 - present: Interim Department Head, Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA
  • July 2010 – October 2015: Associate Professor, Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA
  • Nov 2004 – June 2010: Assistant Professor, Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA
  • Nov. 1999 – Sep 2004: Postdoctoral Research, Jean Greenberg Laboratory, Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, The University of Chicago
  • Jan. 1995 – Oct 1999: Graduate Research, Silviero Sansavini Laboratory, Department of Arboriculture, The University of Bologna, Italy
  • Jan. 1999 – July 1999: Visiting Scientist at the David Lightfoot Laboratory, Department of Plant, Soil and General Agriculture, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (IL)
  • Aug. 1998 – Dec 1998: Visiting Scientist at the Hong-Bin Zhang Laboratory, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences and Crop Biotechnology Center at Texas A&M University, College Station (TX)
  • Jan. 1998 – July 1998: Visiting Scientist at the Cesare Gessler Laboratory, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Institute of Plant Sciences, Zurich (Switzerland)
  • Sep. 1996 – Jan 1997: Visiting Scientist at the Hong-Bin Zhang Laboratory, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences and Crop Biotechnology Center at Texas A&M University, College Station (TX)

Selected Major Awards

  • 2008 - NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award
  • 2005 - Virginia Tech ASPIRES (A Support Program for Innovative Research Strategies) award
  • 2002 - Postdoctoral Ruth L. Kirschstein NIH National Research Service Award
  • 1995 - Graduation "cum laude" from the University of Bologna (Italy)

Courses Taught

  • PPWS 4114 – Microbial Forensics and Biosecurity
  • PPWS 5054 – Plant Pathogenic Agents
  • PPWS 5454 – Plant Disease Physiology

Other Teaching and Advising

Besides formal classroom teaching I advice undergraduate and graduate students and postdocs in my lab. I love interacting with students at all different levels of experience and see students grow scientifically and personally while their lives and mine cross here for a while in my lab at Virginia Tech.

Program Focus

The goal of my outreach program is to bring research to high school students. For example, high school students have contributed to one of our research papers by collecting Pseudomonas syringae bacteria from plants around their school.

Boris A. Vinatzer
  • (540) 231-2126
  • vinatzer@vt.edu
  • 551 Latham Hall
    Mail code: 0390
    220 Ag Quad Lane
    Blacksburg, VA 24061