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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

Min-Yao Jhu is a postdoctoral research associate at the Crop Science Centre, where she is pioneering efforts to engineer nodule organogenesis in cereals, aiming to enhance crop productivity and sustainability.

Her career embodies a commitment to leveraging scientific research for agricultural innovation, with a particular passion for unravelling the complexities of symbiosis-induced organogenesis and plant-parasite dynamics to safeguard and improve crop resilience.

She received her B.S. in Life Sciences at National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan and her M.S. in Plant Biology at National Taiwan University, where she studied wounding-induced miRNAs in sweet potatoes. 

After receiving her master's degree, she worked as a research assistant in Academia Sinica on the regulatory mechanisms of Kranz anatomy development in maize. She then moved to the U.S. and worked with Professor Neelima Sinha on parasitic plant research. Her research focused on haustorium organogenesis in the stem parasitic plant Cuscuta campestris and the host-parasite interaction between Cuscuta and tomato. 

Min-Yao received her Ph.D. in Plant Biology from the University of California, Davis, in 2021. She then moved to the U.K. and joined Giles Oldroyd's research group at the Crop Science Centre. 

What's the most significant professional choice you've had to make? 

The most pivotal decision in my career was the choice to relocate internationally for my education and research. Venturing from Taiwan to the U.S. to pursue my Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis, and subsequently moving to the U.K. for postdoctoral work, marked a significant transition. 

These moves were not just geographical but represented a leap into diverse academic cultures and scientific communities. Engaging with researchers from varied backgrounds has been enriching, offering a plethora of perspectives that have broadened my understanding and approach to science. I believe that diversity is instrumental in fostering a creative and curious mindset, which is essential for propelling scientific advancements. I really appreciate these opportunities that help me enhance my learning and career development.

What was the most recent paper you published, and how did it come about? 

My recently published review article is "Dancing to a different tune, can we switch from chemical to biological nitrogen fixation for sustainable food security?" in Plos Biology. 

This piece reflects on the urgent need for sustainable alternatives to chemically fixed nitrogen in agriculture. By exploring the feasibility of transferring root nodule symbiosis from legumes to other crops, our article highlights the potential for engineering nitrogen fixation in non-legume crops. 

This innovative approach could revolutionize our food production systems, making them more sustainable and self-sufficient. Studies over the last decades have shown that preexisting developmental and signal transduction processes were recruited during the evolution of legume nodulation. This allows us to utilise these preexisting processes to engineer nitrogen fixation in target crops. In the article, we highlight our understanding of legume nodulation and future research directions that might help to overcome the barrier of achieving self-fertilizing crops.

My most recently published primary research article is "Heinz-resistant tomato cultivars exhibit a lignin-based resistance to field dodder (Cuscuta campestris) parasitism" in Plant Physiology. 

Cuscuta species (dodders) are agriculturally destructive, parasitic angiosperms. These parasitic plants use haustoria as physiological bridges to extract nutrients and water from hosts. Cuscuta campestris has a broad host range and wide geographical distribution. While some wild tomato relatives are resistant, cultivated tomatoes are generally susceptible to C. campestris infestations. However, some specific Heinz tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) hybrid cultivars exhibit resistance to dodders in the field, but their defence mechanism was previously unknown. 

We discovered that the stem cortex in these resistant lines responds with local lignification upon C. campestris attachment, preventing parasite entry into the host. We also identified four transcription regulators that control the lignin-based resistance response in specific Heinz tomato cultivars, preventing C. campestris from parasitizing resistant tomatoes. This discovery provides a foundation for investigating multilayer resistance against Cuscuta species and has the potential for application in other essential crops attacked by parasitic plants.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given? 

My favourite pieces of advice are from "Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics" by Joli Jensen. Her perspective that academic writing is a craft that can be honed and refined resonated deeply with me. She advocates for a disciplined yet joyful approach to writing, emphasizing that regular, stress-free engagement with writing fosters productivity and creativity. 

This advice has been a guiding principle in my academic career, encouraging me to view writing not as a daunting task but as a skill that improves with practice and dedication. It has taught me the importance of consistency and finding joy in the process of discovery and expression through writing. This approach has not only enhanced my writing skills but also my overall enjoyment and satisfaction with my research work.

What inspires you? 

As Ruth Lehmann said, ‘the outcome of curiosity-driven science is unpredictable.’* I find inspiration in the unpredictability and intrinsic curiosity that drives scientific exploration. 

Lehmann highlighted the unforeseeable outcomes of curiosity-driven science, which resonates with my belief in the value of fundamental research. It's a reminder that the pursuit of knowledge can lead to ground-breaking discoveries that lay the foundation for future innovations. 

This ethos encourages me to focus on research areas that fascinate me, rather than conforming to prevailing trends. Embracing this approach has allowed me to delve deeply into my interests, particularly in plant-parasite interactions and symbiotic relationships, fostering a genuine enjoyment in my work.

What might others be surprised to learn about you? 

Many might be surprised to learn that beyond my dedication to science, I also love yoga and dancesport, which is competitive ballroom dancing. Currently, I am leading the weekly yoga sessions at the Crop Science Centre. I joined a Latin formation team in Cambridge and now regularly attend national and international competitions with the team. 

Dancing and yoga have been instrumental in enhancing my physical fitness, mental health, and overall resilience. Dancing has also played a crucial role in building my confidence and helping me overcome the challenges of imposter syndrome.

* Lehmann, R. Basic science is not just a foundation. Nat Cell Biol 26, 8–10 (2024).