VitisGen2 Staff Spotlight – Mélanie Massonnet

Melanie MassonetMélanie Massonnet joined the VitisGen2 project as a postdoc researcher in Dario Cantu’s lab at University of California Davis, USA. After a Master’s degree in Viticulture and Enology at Bordeaux University, France, Mélanie did a PhD in Applied Biotechnologies at Verona University, Italy, where she conducted comparative transcriptomic analysis of ten grapevine varieties during berry development. Since 2016, Mélanie has been investigating grape-pathogen interactions at transcriptomic level, and more particularly the transcriptional mechanisms associated with grape disease resistance and microbial virulence.

What got you interested in grape disease resistance and breeding?
Having grown up in the Loire Valley of France, wine is a fundamental part of my culture. I have always been fascinated by the complex beauty of grape growing and wine making. It was only natural for me to study viticulture. Learning about the challenges from pests and diseases faced by grape growers inspired me to better understand the relationships between the grapevine and its microbial community.

What is your role with the VitisGen2 project, and how does your research fit in with the overall goals of the project?
My role in VitisGen2 consists of performing the genome-wide transcriptional analyses of the breeding populations for powdery mildew resistance. This project aims to identify genes and biological pathways associated with different genetic sources of disease resistance, in order to develop novel molecular markers for breeding programs. In addition, I will investigate the effects of incorporating multiple resistance genes from diverse genetic backgrounds into a single plant.

What are some major challenges faced by the industry/breeders, and how will your work address them?
Wine growers face numerous diseases and pests that are detrimental to both grape yield and fruit quality. So far, expensive application of prophylactic treatments have been the most commonly used viticultural practice. But pathogens evolve rapidly and become increasingly resistant to treatments. Accordingly, creating new cultivars combining both durable powdery mildew resistance with high-quality fruit traits will help ensure a sustainable viticulture industry. In the case of powdery mildew, multiple sources of genetic resistance have already been characterized in grapes, but most of the resistant species are not suitable for wine making. Exploring the genomic and transcriptomic bases of powdery mildew resistance will help develop new molecular markers and thus accelerate the breeding process, as marker-assisted selection can be done early in plant development.

What is the most exciting thing you’ve learned or done since starting work with VitisGen2?
The powdery mildew phenotyping robot is undoubtedly one of the most exciting VitisGen2 achievements for me. Phenotyping data are crucial for identifying markers through genome- and transcriptome-wide association analyses. Automated evaluation of the powdery mildew fungus Erysiphe necator’s development on leaf disks enables the high-throughput analysis of thousands of samples, which will improve the accuracy and statistical power for association analyses. I really look forward to working with these phenotyping data.

What tip would you give someone just beginning a career in plant science or genetics?
Starting a career in plant science and genetics often means working on a very specific topic. My advice is to stay open-minded, always be aware of the bigger picture, and keep communicating. Discussing your research project with other people can give you a new perspective, even if it is not their field.