As a young girl in Poznań, Poland, Malgorzata Jedryczka often rode her bicycle past the Institute of Plant Genetics on the outskirts of town. The rows of greenhouses and women in lab coats seemed like something special. When she began studying at Poznań University of Life Sciences in the late 1970s, genetics was a fast-growing field. Jedryczka became a part of it, studying genetics and plant breeding.
As a student, Jedryczka joined Poland's Solidarity movement, helping set up an allied student organization at the university. For a brief moment in 1980, it looked like Poland's repressive system was about to improve: Jedryczka was allowed to leave for a fellowship at a lab in Sweden. There, she learned to work with germ plasm before returning to Poznań. Then Poland's communist regime cracked down, declaring martial law in December 1981. "I was questioned by the police and things became very hard," Jedryczka says. "It wasn't possible to develop a career with connections abroad."
That didn't stop her from trying. In 1984 she was hired as a Ph.D. student at the Institute for Plant Genetics, joining the white-coated researchers she admired from afar when she was a girl. She kept applying for chances to work with colleagues abroad, but in communist-era Poland, the government reviewed foreign-fellowship applications, and her activity as a Solidarity activist was a black mark on her record.
Not until communism in Poland ended in the summer of 1989 did her applications reach the review committees. The difference was immediate. "It was the first time I got a response directly from the organization that was giving the fellowship," she says. In 1990, she was offered three fellowships simultaneously. "I was completely crazy. I wanted to go everywhere at once."
Since then, travel and international cooperation have become hallmarks of her lab, which focuses on the genetics of agricultural pathogens. Comparing crop pathogens, which can vary widely in virulence and impact, turns out to be remarkably international, and examining different plant strains at gene banks around the world sometimes needs to be done in person. "Some things you will never discover when you don't compare physically different things," says Jedryczka, now 49.
Monitoring crop disease
From the beginning of her career, Jedryczka wanted to breed plants that could resist fungal attacks. For her doctorate she bred pea plants to resist fusarium wilt, a common pathogen that also affects tomatoes and potatoes. From there it was a short hop to fungal pathogens in other crops, such as rapeseed.
Rapeseed has increased in importance in Europe and China as demand for biofuel has risen. In 2000, Polish farmers harvested about 450,000 hectares of rapeseed; in 2009 they brought in more than 810,000 hectares. Planted in the fall as a winter cover crop, rapeseed flowers in the early spring. But the molds that cause oilseed stem canker -- Leptosphaeria maculans and L. biglobosa -- attack in the fall, so there's a long gap between the time fungicides need to be sprayed and when the crop matures.
Jedryczka wanted to see if there was a way to map the connections between airborne spores in the fall and stem canker crop losses in the summer. The research required an understanding of the interactions between rapeseed and different strains of L. maculans and L. biglobosa. Some rapeseed variants are more resistant to fungal attack; by the same token, some strains of L. maculans and L. biglobosa are less virulent than others. It is work that is complicated and expensive. "It's difficult to get funding because the costs can be really substantial," Jedryczka says.
Analyzing airborne spores also takes a special skill set, which Jedryczka first encountered at the Rothamsted Research facility in the United Kingdom, where she was a fellow in 1990. Scientists capture airborne spores and pollen using spore traps made of tape coated with petroleum jelly. The tape is exposed, cut, prepared as a slide, and analyzed under a microscope. "By coming here, [Jedryczka] picked up ideas that could be applied in Poland," says Rothamsted Research biologist Bruce Fitt.
Comparing the number of spores on the slide to wind speeds -- the traps are usually placed near weather stations -- lets researchers estimate how many spores are in the air hour by hour. More spores in the air means a greater infection risk; knowing what kind of spores is also important. In 2000 Jedryczka started experimenting with a single spore trap located near Poznań, with the help of a grant from the European Union.
Ph.D. student Joanna Kaczmarek (left, standing) and Malgorzata Jedryczka (right, standing) train volunteers to prepare slides obtained from the spore traps.
In the fall of 2004, representatives from DuPont asked Jedryczka if she would like to increase the project's scale -- by 10 times. The idea was to set up a nationwide stem canker monitoring system for farmers, with Jedryczka's lab doing the monitoring and analysis and DuPont doing outreach to farmers and providing fungicide. The company paid for enough spore traps for a total of 10 sites distributed around Poland, and funded fellowships for two Ph.D. students to work in Jedryczka's lab.
To make the system work on a minimal budget, Jedryczka recruited farmers, friends, and colleagues at other labs to help set up monitoring stations and prepare slides from the tape in the traps. To keep the volunteers engaged, she sends out personalized reports each year explaining how the results were being used, how the lab's Ph.D. students were progressing, and what the outlook was for the next year. "We needed to make people care about us and not feel like they were sending their samples into the blue," Jedryczka says. "It was something new for everybody so everybody wanted to participate."
Since 2004, Jedryczka's System for Forecasting Disease Epidemics (SPEC) has grown to be the largest rapeseed pathogen-monitoring network in the world. Colleagues are impressed. "If you can detect spores in the air, as with her system in Poland, you can predict when the disease is likely to occur," says Rothamsted Research's Fitt. By keeping close track of when rapeseed pathogens are at their peak, the system can advise farmers when to apply fungicides and when not to, letting them use chemicals as efficiently as possible.
Maintaining scientific independence was an important concern when Jedryczka was considering the industry partnership. "At first I didn't want to take money from a commercial company because then you lose credibility," she says. "But they know if I study their product and it's bad, I will write that." She isn't paid by DuPont for managing the project or giving lectures to farmers, in contrast to most of the company's scientific collaborators; she says it's "not nice for the family budget, but it makes me fully independent." And the information her work generates is available to all farmers, not just DuPont customers. The deal with DuPont leaves publishing decisions entirely in her hands and doesn't limit her ability to disseminate the information her research uncovers, although she says that, as a courtesy, she coordinates with the company ahead of time and has never encountered any opposition.
Expanding the lab
Joanna Kaczmarek checks for signs of disease in an oilseed rape field.
One crucial part of the project's success was the funding DuPont provided for two doctoral students. (The lab's third Ph.D. student, Joanna Ciszewska-Marciniak, works on pathogens that attack willows, another crop that is becoming more important as a biofuel source, with funding from Poland's science ministry.) During the 6 peak months for stem canker fungus -- from September to November and again from March to May -- Ph.D. students Adam Dawidziuk and Joanna Kaczmarek spend all of their time analyzing samples sent in from the spore traps scattered around Poland. Volunteers collect a sample slide each day at each of the 10 sampling stations around the country; each sample slide can take between 20 minutes and 3 hours to analyze.
The two graduate students also maintain the project's Web site, give presentations to hundreds of farmers at a time at field days sponsored by DuPont, and answer calls from rapeseed growers concerned about funny blotches on their crops. (When the project first went up, the grad students gave out their personal cell phone numbers, resulting in more than a few inquiries at 6 a.m. "That was our error," Dawidziuk says, laughing.) The Web site now gets more than 10,000 hits per year, and 13,000 text messages with reports on spore levels went out to around 3000 farmers last year.
The painstaking analysis that drives the Web site and helps thousands of Polish farmers decide when and whether to spray their fields has given Dawidziuk and Kaczmarek data for their doctoral dissertations, which both expect to finish this spring. Dawidziuk, who took a year off to work in private industry before coming back to biology as a grad student in the lab, focuses on mathematical modeling, using the spore data to pinpoint the times when crops are at the highest risk for infection each year.
Adam Dawidziuk prepares data for the mathematical model for the SPEC system.
Kaczmarek, who came to the lab in 2004, was awarded a Scopus-Perspektywy Young Researcher Award last year for her work using PCR techniques to distinguish the two types of stem canker, which differ in virulence and in their ability to infiltrate and kill the plant. It's an innovation that could speed up analysis in the peak season and make the SPEC system more efficient. She has found the lab's engagement with farmers particularly gratifying. "It's better to be a scientist helping people," she says. "It's nice to know so many people are benefiting from your work."
Once Kaczmarek and Dawidziuk finish their Ph.D.s, the lab may take a step back from the SPEC program, Jedryczka says: "From a scientific point of view, we can't really get much more out of monitoring year-to-year." The next step is refining and patenting the decision-support system, and perhaps handing it off to DuPont to run. Next, the lab aims to adapt spore-trapping techniques to allergen detection and to look at industrial uses for rapeseed stubble, with grants from Poland's Ministry of Education.
Jedryczka's cooperation with labs around the world has reflected Poland's rapid transformation over the last 20 years. After traveling to learn techniques at leading labs in the United Kingdom and France in the 1990s, Jedryczka and her students have been asked to pass their knowledge on to colleagues in Russia, Sweden, Portugal -- and China, where Jedryczka has been awarded a "Friendship Award" for her work with rapeseed farmers in the rural Anhui region. "I'm very proud that it's not only we get, but we also give," Jedryczka says. "I need the feeling that my research is needed, that my results are used by someone."
All photos are courtesy of Malgorzata Jedryczka.
Andrew Curry is a writer based in Berlin.