March 2021
WSU researcher Kiwamu Tanaka focused on identifying natural plant disease resistance

Just like humans, plants have evolutionary immune systems. Washington State University Associate Professor Kiwanu Tanaka has made studying those immune systems and how they interact with soil microbes the focus of his research. Tanaka, who grew up in Japan, said discovering the plant disease triangle concept — how the host, pathogen and environment interact — was sort of his a-ha moment and set him on a path toward research.

1: Could you share a little on your background? 

I earned a Ph.D. in plant physiology, but, through a stroke of luck, my postdoctoral research was focused on symbiosis between plants and soil microbes. At that time, I really enjoyed studying how microbes have evolved to preserve the plant immune system to form symbiotic or antagonistic relationships. The latter is the case causing a disease eventually. Since my own lab was set in 2014 at Washington State University, I have been focusing on general plant immunology, but also potato pathology. I feel fortunate working on potato diseases, given that I always have a great time interacting with nice people in the industry, including growers and scientists. 

2: What drew you to plant pathology? 

When I learned about the disease triangle concepts — one of paradigms in plant pathology — I felt quite challenged but excited given the complexity of the field of study.   

3: What is your current area of focus? 

My basic research is focusing on general plant immunology using moss to flowering plants. My research in potato pathology is currently on powdery scab and silver scurf diseases. Despite many research efforts, these are still important tuber blemish diseases because they have an impact on the appearance and quality of washed and pre-packed products.

4: Any updates on your powdery scab research? 

We have established a lab-based pathogenicity assay. It took a long time since the causal pathogen is an unculturable protist. But with this assay, we are now capable to study this disease in the different levels, e.g., fungicide testing, germplasm screening, genomics, etc. We just started genomics and systems biology to understand the relationship between three organisms — the potato plant, protist and virus — since the powdery scab pathogen transmits potato mop-top virus (PMTV). The goal of this project is creating a predictive model in this complicated pathosystem.

5: Any long-term goals for your research? 

Finding a fundamental mechanism that makes plants vigor and healthy against a broad range of diseases. 

6: What do you enjoy doing in your free time? 

Hiking with my dog, gardening, playing guitar and dancing salsa!  

7: What is your favorite way to eat potatoes?  

I love any potato dishes. Just to mention a few, french fries, German fries and Japanese powdery potatoes are my favorite. 

MORE with Kiwamu Tanaka: Powdery scab suppression remains elusive

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