Lorito initiated his innovative scientific career in plant pathology working at Cornell University in collaboration with Gary Harman. While at Cornell, he codiscovered and characterized a number of enzymes and genes that regulate the biocontrol activity of Trichoderma spp. by degrading the cell wall of phytopathogenic fungi. He developed a new method to genetically modify these biocontrol microbes by using biolistic transformation. He also discovered a variety of synergistic interactions of the Trichoderma hydrolytic enzymes with other microbes and chemical pesticides, thus introducing the application of these fungal molecules as general antifungal agents.
Upon his return to Italy in 1994, the objectives of his program have diversified to cover a variety of topics, from basic understanding of biocontrol mechanisms to practical applications of beneficial microbes. One of the main accomplishments was to demonstrate that plant disease resistance can be transgenically increased by using fungal biocontrol-related genes, such as those encoding Trichoderma chitinases and glucanases. Since this pioneer work, numerous other laboratories have applied the same technology to a variety of different crops, generating, for instance, a new variety of rice resistant to fungal pathogens expected to be marketed in China next year.
He made some key discoveries that allowed a significant advancement in the understanding of the fundamental interactions between beneficial fungi, plants, and pathogens. These include the demonstration of the key role of chitinases and glucanases in Trichoderma biocontrol interactions, the identification of bioactive and signaling molecules that activate antagonistic mechanisms and plant response to these fungi, the discovery and characterization of biocontrol-related promoters and their use to develop nondisruptive reporter systems for the detection of gene expression and to monitor disease control activity, the genetic improvement of Trichoderma strains to increase their beneficial effects on crops, and the identification of novel factors involved in the three-way interaction (Trichoderma–plant–pathogen) by using a holistic approach based on proteome analysis. His discoveries have made him an internationally recognized expert on Trichoderma and biocontrol. He has contributed to the current new understanding of the mechanisms of action of these beneficial microbes, used worldwide as biopesticides, by demonstrating that the direct effects of these fungi on plants is at least as important as their direct effects on pathogens via antibiosis, mycoparasitism, and other mechanisms.
He has also made significant contributions to industrial biotechnology, mainly but not only in biocontrol science and plant pathology. By applying the current understanding that he partially generated on biocontrol interactions, he has selected new fungal agents with improved efficacy against a wider range of pathogens and the ability to induce plant systemic resistance as well as promote plant growth, nutrition, and yield. He also developed new biopesticide formulations based on antimicrobial and synergistic properties of antifungal enzyme and metabolites produced by selected Trichoderma strains. He applied a similar enzyme-based technology to improve the dietary fiber contents of cereal products and, thus, their digestibility for use in human food, commercialized by a major pasta and bread company.
He has developed cooperative projects around the globe, ranging from Europe to China to North and South America. His program has been awarded in the last decade about eight million euro in grants from both national and foreign agencies. This is a tribute both to his research skills and to the regard with which his collaborators hold his expertise and cooperative attitude. He has published about 90 papers in reviewed journals (about 300 when including abstracts) and about 20 book chapters and has authored 14 patents and patent applications. Many of his papers are in high-impact-factor journals, including Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of USA, Nature Reviews Microbiology, and Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions. Additionally, he is involved in the startup of several companies in the United States and in Europe.
At his university, he is teaching, or has taught, graduate or undergraduate courses in plant pathology, physiological plant pathology, biotechnology applied to plant pathology, laboratory of plant protection, novel methods of disease control, and pathogenic and beneficial microbes in agriculture. Moreover, he has tutored more than 40 Ph.D. and bachelor theses in plant pathology and served as a tribunal member of several Ph.D. theses in Europe. He is the head of exchange and international cooperative programs or commissions, senior editor of the annals of the faculty of agriculture, and on the Board of Directors of the Ph.D. program in agrochemistry and agrobiology.
He serves APS in the Phytopathology News Advisory Board and the Biological Control Committee. He is a member of the International Society for Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions (IS-MPMI) and served as editor for Europe of the IS-MPMI Reporter. He is now an associate editor of the MPMI journal. He is on the Board of Directors of the Italian Plant Pathology Society and chair and organizer of the 13th International Congress on Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions to be held in Sorrento, Italy, in 2007.
Lorito also has been awarded several honors, including a Fulbright Fellowship for Research, a Fellowship from the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), and a Lecturer Scholarship from the Lecturer Program of the U.S. Council for International Exchange of Scholars. He has been invited as a speaker or chair in more than 100 congresses, seminars, and other occasions, including being a chair, invited, or plenary speaker in the last four editions of the International Congress of Plant Pathology. His expertise in the fields of biocontrol, plant pathology, and biotechnology is frequently requested from various journals and granting agencies to review papers and proposals.