Shelley Lumba to deliver Stress-Free Degree lecture on conversations between plants and fungi as one of many events at Alumni Reunion 2024

April 16, 2024 by Coby Zucker - A&S News

An opportunity to learn more about the secret language between plants and fungi is just one of the exciting events being offered at Alumni Reunion 2024.

Shelley Lumba, an assistant professor in the Department of Cell & Systems Biology, will explore the oldest symbiotic relationship on earth as part of her Stress-Free Degree lecture, “The Secret Language Between Plants and Fungi.” She’ll discuss how her research has decoded the meaning of molecular signals in conversations between plants and fungi.

From May 29 to June 2, Alumni Reunion will feature free lectures, outdoor festivities and other activities across the tri-campus as U of T alumni return and reconnect at the biggest alumni event of the year. Find the right event for you by visiting U of T’s Reunion event page and filtering by dates, faculty, college and type of event.

Here is what Lumba had to say about her talk, academic background and the Stress-Free Degrees series.

What prompted you to say yes to an invitation to put on a Stress-Free Degree lecture?

It's important to me, as a scientist, to communicate scientific research and our stories to the public. They fund my research program and ultimately my job is to perform impactful research for the public. Any chance to communicate what we do in an accessible way to the public is always something I'm very interested in doing. And I think our story is great. I'll be able to tell a narrative of what our research is and why it is important to the public. My hope is that they're going to go home and have dinner table conversations, saying, ‘I heard some cool stuff today at the Alumni Reunion lecture series.’ I want to make the high impact research we're doing clear and accessible. Those are my motivations for doing this talk.

Can you tell me a little about your lecture?

I’ll start my seminar with how ancient and how important the interaction is between plants and fungi. For example, we know plants and fungi have been communicating for more than 400 million years at least. And because they have been interacting for more than 400 million years, they had to evolve a language they both understand to coordinate an exchange of nutrients and carbon. But plants and fungi are in two entirely different kingdoms of life, right? It’s quite remarkable that they have a molecular dialogue based on small molecules to understand each other's needs. And my research program, part of it anyway, is built on understanding or decoding those inter-kingdom signals from the plants to the fungi.

What is the wider significance of these inter-kingdom conversations between plants and fungi?

It turns out if the plants and fungi don't communicate, there's no such thing as agriculture. All our crops are dependent on interactions with fungi in the soil. These are interactions you never see because they're all underground, but if they didn't happen, we wouldn't have successful agricultural practices. Forests also depend on interactions between trees and other plant life with the fungi underneath the ground.

Plants are not only are essential for food, but you're wearing plants, you live in plant material, they’re essential for our ecosystem oxygen and gas exchange. People may not understand necessarily how plants impact their lives. I'm hoping to highlight that in the talk.

How did you become interested in this research topic?

I was born in the Philippines, where I grew up until I was 10. My grandparents had a rice farm and that made an impact on me because I visited practically every weekend. I could see the importance of plants and agriculture. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, there was a severe food shortage because there were huge population increases. There was a call for a Green Revolution, meaning we had to drastically increase yield of crops, most importantly rice, maize and wheat. Plant scientists and plant breeders got together and, within a short period of time, bred plants that would have twice the amount of yield. And this made sure people, particularly in Asia, Mexico and India, especially in lower income countries and villages, had food to survive.

What I didn't realize at the time was my grandparents actually grew that hybrid rice from the Green Revolution. And if we didn't have that, I don't think we necessarily would have had enough food, and I may not be sitting here talking to you today as an assistant professor of this department. It's not very well known that we needed a revolution and that we still need another revolution now with climate change to feed the world in a more sustainable way.

So, that's the personal motivation and why I think it's important to study plants and plant fungal interactions. You could save a million people's lives and you don't know where those people are going to end up.

Are there any differences in your approach to talking about this subject when you're speaking to a classroom of your students versus a room full of alumni?

The way I start my class presentations is similar, believe it or not, to speaking in front of a general audience. Even when I give a talk at the Fungal Genetics Conference, I give a similar presentation because it's important to set the foundation and the rationale. What are the potential impacts of the research? Do that early and you can grab and engage the audience.

I plan on going over general strategies around how I, as a scientist, solve this problem. For example, these fungi are hard to work with because we can't do genetic manipulation in them. One of our strengths as a lab is coming up with model systems, model organisms to study these processes. And another strategy is highlighting that this is such an exciting era in biology because of all the genomics tools we have. The pipeline we developed integrates a lot of these next generation genomic approaches to answer the question of how plants talk to fungi.

  • More details and a registration link for Lumba’s talk can be found on the Reunion events page.