A native of France, Valérie Verdier earned her doctoral degree in plant pathology from the University of Paris XI (Orsay, 1988) by studying cassava bacterial blight disease, an increasingly important disease in the developing world. She continued her studies of the characterization and evolution of the cassava bacterial blight pathogen, and the epidemiology of the disease, with a focus on identifying potential measures for disease control in the Congo. These projects lead her to a position at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) and to several years’ work in Central and West Africa. Later, she worked for six years at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia to develop and manage a large cassava disease project focused on characterizing the pathogen populations and finding sources of resistance. In 2001, Verdier joined the University of Perpignan, where she managed the cassava genomics project, a collaboration with Agropolis and CIAT. She earned her “Habilitation à Diriger des Recherches” (HDR) at the University of Orsay (2003).
Verdier’s passion is solving plant disease problems on crops that feed the poorest of the poor. In almost three decades of work in West and Central Africa, Columbia, France, and the United States, she has dedicated herself to characterizing and controlling bacterial diseases of cassava and rice. Her contributions are widely varied and impactful; for example, she has identified novel disease-causing bacterial strains by surveying the front lines of disease in developing countries, discovered new sources of disease-resistant germplasm for these pathogens, and innovated novel methods to assess bacterial gene expression and screen for resistance to specific effector genes. Prior to Verdier’s work, little was known about the nature and extent of bacterial diseases of cassava and rice in Africa. Few pathologists have the in-depth partnerships that she has nurtured in African countries. She has built lasting collaborative networks between plant bacteriologists in Europe, Africa, and the Americas, including leading international genome sequencing and taxonomy efforts, training and mentoring young pathologists from developing countries, and serving on several international committees. Her research on diverse aspects of disease biology and long record of global service make Verdier a critical asset to the field of international plant pathology.
During her extensive time in Africa, Verdier noted the emergence and increase of bacterial blight and leaf streak diseases on rice. To assess the distribution of the diseases, Verdier lead collection surveys in several countries in Africa. These surveys documented the emergence of novel strains of Xanthomonas oryzae pvs. oryzicola and oryzae that are now causing epidemics in parts of Africa. She continues to work with rice breeders to identify resistant germplasm to control the diseases caused by these pathogens. To study how the pathogens interact with rice to cause disease, she built a new research team at Perpignan and later moved the entire team to IRD at Montpellier. The research group at Montpellier and their partners in various counties in Africa are a leading force worldwide in both basic and applied studies of bacterial blight and leaf streak of rice.
Verdier’s international recognition as an expert on diseases caused by Xanthomonas was earned through her pioneering uses of diverse approaches, ranging from traditional plant pathology and population biology to advanced genomic analyses, to characterize pathogenic Xanthomonas and their population structures. Her studies of the important plant pathogens X. oryzae pvs. oryzae and oryzicola and X. axonopodis pv. manihotis have made fundamental contributions to our understanding of how these bacteria cause disease and approaches for their control. Her innovations are many and include the development of novel strategies to assess bacterial gene expression in planta. Recently, she demonstrated the feasibility of using an X. oryzae strain that does not contain TAL effectors as a tool for screening rice germplasm for specific disease resistance genes. She is a sought after and productive collaborator, and she has been invited to present her research at national and international meetings and in seminars. Her track record and ability to embrace new technologies demonstrate her innovation and productive trajectory.
Verdier is a valued citizen of the scientific community. She has served on key advisory committees in France and around the world, including committees involved in the planning of international symposia such as the International Congress on Plant Bacteriology. She is a long-standing and active member of the French Society for Plant Pathology, APS, and IS-MPMI. She led international efforts to obtain funding for genome sequencing of pathogens relevant to the developing world and she was instrumental in the community efforts to annotate those genomes. Verdier coordinated a French network that grew to an international network organized to work on Xanthomonas. She co-organized a symposium at the 2013 APS Annual Meeting to promote partnerships with French, U.S., and African scientists. She organized a Root Tuber Banana Bacterial Diseases Initiative and Workshop held in Kenya in 2013. Verdier has contributed to the broader scientific community in the form of editorial board service, peer reviews of manuscripts, and grant reviews. In recognition of her scholarly activities, she was appointed in honorary capacities with several organizations, including serving as an expert for the European Economic Interest Grouping. Verdier was awarded a prestigious Marie Curie Fellowship by the European Commission. This award, which recognizes research excellence, supported her for a sabbatical at Colorado State University, where she became a visiting fellow in the School of Global Environmental Sustainability.
In summary, Valérie Verdier has a rare breadth and depth of international research and agricultural development experience. Her superb communication skills (she is fluent in French, English, and Spanish) facilitate her ability to apply and promote plant pathology research in many countries. Her promotion of pathology research programs in the developing world have produced a cadre of plant pathologists who are now leading crop protection programs in cassava- and rice-growing areas.