James R. Alfano
James R. Alfano grew up in Ventura County, California, where he enjoyed typical pursuits such as camping, days at the beach, and playing baseball. After high school, he attended Moorpark Junior College from 1981–1983 studying biology while working fulltime at a local sporting goods store. He transferred to San Diego State University in 1983 where he majored in microbiology and received his B.S. degree in 1986. For his Ph.D. studies, he worked with Michael Kahn in the Institute of Biological Chemistry at Washington State University where he studied the symbiotic nitrogen-fixing relationship between rhizobia bacteria and legume plants and obtained his Ph.D. degree in microbiology in 1993. For his post-doctoral research, he decided to switch from studying a beneficial host–microbe interaction to a destructive one and joined Alan Collmer’s research group at Cornell University in 1997 where he studied the gram-negative bacterial pathogens Erwinia chrysanthemi and Pseudomonas syringae and the protein secretion systems employed by these bacteria to deliver virulence factors to the plant cell.
While in Alan Collmer’s research group, Alfano contributed to the initial research that indicated that the P. syringae type III protein secretion system was capable of delivering bacterial proteins into plant cells. Many of these effector proteins are Avr proteins. Thus, Alfano helped solve the riddle of how bacterial Avr proteins were perceived by plant cells—that is they need to be injected into the plant cell by the pathogen’s type III secretion system before they can be detected by plant resistance proteins.
In 1997, Alfano joined the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, as an assistant professor where he taught bacterial genetics and general microbiology. His research group continued to elucidate how the P. syringae type III secretion system affected plants to favor pathogenesis. A notable research accomplishment by his research group in Nevada was the realization that the hrp genes, the genes that encoded the type III apparatus, actually were part of a pathogenicity island, which are clusters of virulence genes within pathogens that are horizontally acquired. This led to the discovery of several genes in the flanking regions of the Hrp pathogenicity island that encoded type IIIsecreted substrates. Another accomplishment while in Nevada was the optimization of the assays to allow for the detection of the secretion of Avr proteins via the P. syringae type III system.
In fall 2000, Alfano joined the Plant Science Initiative and the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, as an assistant professor, where he notes that he gained a lot more greenhouse space but lost some entertainment opportunities. In Nebraska, Alfano continued to teach microbiology and his research group has remained productive in advancing our knowledge of type III protein secretion systems. His group was the first to identify the use of type III chaperones in bacterial plant pathogens. Alfano also was part of the research consortium led by Alan Collmer that completed sequencing of the P. syringae tomato DC3000 genome. Using the DC3000 genome, Alfano’s group, with collaborators, identified many type III-secreted proteins from P. syringae using bioinformatic approaches in conjunction with experimental testing. The confirmed inventory of P. syringae type III-secreted proteins is now larger than any other reported type III system. And recently, Alfano has been one of the first scientists to show that individual type III effectors from plant pathogens can suppress the plant innate immune system.
Alfano has communicated his research by publishing 25 research articles in referred journals. Moreover, he has been very active in writing reviews and book chapters on bacterial pathogenicity, type III systems, and other related topics. For example, he wrote several highly cited reviews on plant-pathogenic bacteria. One of these is a general review on different aspects of phytopathogenic bacteria entitled “Bacterial Pathogens in Plants: Life Up Against the Wall” that he wrote for The Plant Cell, which was the first review to note that plant pathogens inject bacterial proteins into plant cells. More recently, he co-wrote a review on type III effectors that suppress plant innate immunity entitled “Disabling Surveillance: Bacterial Type III Secretion System Effectors that Suppress Innate Immunity” for Cellular Microbiology. Alfano is a senior editor of the Molecular Plant Pathology journal and an associate editor of Microbiology. He maintains a relatively well-funded research program at the University of Nebraska. Alfano’s nonscientific interests include travel, exercise, his dog Tucker, and good microbrews. The latter he tries to sample regularly in the Haymarket district of Lincoln with his wife Karin and friends.