Ignazio Carbone’s primary area of research seeks to determine if genes involved in the biosynthesis of fungal bioreactive compounds, such as aflatoxin, evolved prior to or along with events involved in speciation or evolved subsequently to speciation in populations. His research has focused on highly conserved gene clusters in the secondary metabolic pathways of aflatoxin. This research is not only relevant to aflatoxin biosynthesis, but addresses broader questions at the micro- and macro-evolutionary scales for fungal genes involved in secondary metabolism. Although engaged in fundamental research, he has a stated practical goal of elucidating mechanisms that maintain clustering in nature and may identify biocontrol strains that could shift the balance in favor of nontoxicogenic strains. He has multiple publications in high-impact disciplinary journals, such as Molecular Ecology, BMC Evolutionary Biology, and Fungal Genetics and Biology. These are seminal papers that provide new insights into the evolution of gene clusters in the secondary metabolic pathways for aflatoxin biosynthesis and the forces that shape them. They are highly regarded as having implications for other secondary metabolite gene clusters involved in the synthesis of toxins and pharmaceuticals. In addition to his own program, he actively collaborates with other faculty and their students investigating genomics, pathogen evolution, and variation. These collaborations have lead to additional publications in Nature, PNAS, Journal of Bacteriology, Genetics, and Evolution. In addition, he has published in Mycologia, Phytopathology, Journal of Parasitology, and the Canadian Journal of Forest Research. These latter journals are evidence of his intellectual commitment to the discipline of plant pathology.
While his publication record during this young career is enviable, his unselfish efforts to lower the bar for accessibility to new and widely used tools for genetic analysis truly distinguishes Carbone from other productive young scientists. He has strove to develop and improve the tools for genetic analysis and then to develop a platform for a combination of the analytical tools for genetic analysis of biological populations, which he has labeled the “SNAP Workbench”. This suite of tools combines a number of existing analyses together with some advanced analyses in such a way that they are accessible to the practitioner as well as the theoretical researcher with a relatively modest amount of training. The core of the suite is described in two papers in Bioinformatics. There is already evidence based on citations that the platform has improved accessibility to those tools and is influencing the way we view pathogen populations. They reflect use by both fundamental scientists investigating evolutionary patterns of specific genes and gene clusters as well as applied scientists studying disease epidemiology and pathogen variation. He generously grants access to the suite through his personal website. In addition, he introduces students to the theory for the application of genetic analyses as well as the platform for using them in lectures and labs in his course. It is a popular course attended by staff and faculty in addition to graduate students. The true measure of the power and the popularity of this suite are documented by his invitations to present workshops at the APS annual meeting, the American Society of Microbiology annual meeting, Yale University, the 7th International Mycological Congress, and the International Meeting on Fungal Symbiosis. The popularity of the workshops is not only due to the demand for the content but also to the engaging, passionate style of teaching that Carbone employs in the workshops and in his classes. He has responsibility for teaching his genetic analysis course as well as the population section of the plant-microbe interaction course at North Carolina State University. He routinely receives some of the highest student evaluations of any of the graduate faculty.
Collectively, his publication record and his sharing of new concepts and tools, together with his passion for teaching and mentoring, distinguish this young scientist from his peers, placing him among the other recipients of the Syngenta Award.