The society grants this honor to a current APS member in recognition of distinguished contributions to plant pathology or to The American Phytopathological Society. Fellow recognition is based on significant contributions in one or more of the following areas: original research, teaching, administration, professional and public service, and/or extension and outreach.
Peter Balint-Kurti was born in Boston, MA; attended Cambridge University (U.K.) as an undergraduate; and received his Ph.D. degree at the Sainsbury Laboratory, John Innes Centre in Norwich, U.K. (1990-1994). He held postdoctoral appointments at the National Institutes of Health and the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell University and worked in the commercial sector for several years before, in 2003, joining the USDA-ARS as a research geneticist and USDA professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at North Carolina State University, where he remains today.
Balint-Kurti is internationally recognized for elucidating the genetics controlling quantitative disease resistance (QDR) and the defense response in maize. QDR, also known as partial resistance, usually has a multigenic basis and, consequently, tends to be durable. It is, therefore, the predominant form of disease resistance deployed in agriculture. Focusing on the foliar fungal diseases Southern leaf blight (SLB), Northern leaf blight (NLB), and gray leaf spot (GLS) and using the powerful genetic analysis resources available for maize, Balint-Kurti and colleagues have elucidated the genetic architecture controlling natural variation in QDR to these diseases in unprecedented detail. Multiple disease resistance (MDR), the phenomenon whereby genes or loci confer resistance to more than one disease, had not previously been systematically investigated in maize. Balint-Kurti and colleagues have identified loci and specific alleles conferring MDR to GLS, SLB, and NLB in maize and showed that the caffeoyl-CoA O-methyltransferase gene, a component of the phenylpropanoid pathway, conferred MDR. They identified and fine-mapped MDR alleles from teosinte, the ancient progenitor of cultivated maize—the first time agronomically useful alleles had been identified from teosinte, other than for domestication. Balint-Kurti’s group produced one of the few analyses of the yield effects of QDR resistance alleles in the presence and absence of disease.
While QDR mechanisms are generally poorly understood, plants possess better characterized specialized defense mechanisms termed pattern-triggered immunity (PTI) and effector-triggered immunity (ETI). Balint-Kurti’s group developed methods of assessing PTI in maize and sorghum and mapped loci associated with variation in this response in both species, identifying novel targets for resistance breeding. The hypersensitive response (HR), a rapid, localized cell death in response to pathogen penetration, is a common feature of ETI in higher plants. Little is known about how HR varies in natural populations or about the genetic architecture controlling this variation. Balint-Kurti and collaborators used massive mapping populations combined with precise phenotyping and a novel technique that involved mapping modifiers of immune system mutant phenotypes to identify sets of specific genes and pathways associated with natural variation in the strength of HR. Balint-Kurti’s group characterized the action of Rp1-D, a major maize resistance (R-) gene that triggers HR upon pathogen recognition and showed that the Rp1-D protein interacts directly with several enzymes in the phenylpropanoid pathway. They showed that these interactions modulate Rp1-D activity and that natural allelic variation in some of these proteins alters the strength of the HR elicited. They characterized the transcriptional and metabolomic changes associated with Rp1-D defense signaling and derived a gene regulation network describing the transcriptional response. They also demonstrated that ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation and the mitochondrial electron transport chain are important in the regulation of Rp1-D and likely other R-genes. They characterized the control of R-gene regulation by light, temperature, and subcellular localization, and they demonstrated that, while the HR elicited by Rp1-D activation is cell autonomous, other aspects of the ETI are not.
The degree to which different components of the defense response rely on common biochemical and signaling mechanism is not clear. Balint-Kurti’s group demonstrated that the genetic basis of variation in a mild leaf flecking trait often observed in maize lines overlaps with that of QDR, ETI, and PTI, showing that leaf flecking can, to some extent, be used in breeding programs as a proxy trait for multiple disease resistance. Balint-Kurti has made significant contributions to other aspects of maize genetics as well. With collaborators, he produced and characterized several maize mapping populations and made them available to the wider maize genetics community. His group identified and characterized a novel maize transposon and was involved in a collaboration that characterized the microbiome as an important mediator of heterosis in maize.
Balint-Kurti has published more than 100 scientific papers, many in high-impact journals, including Science, Nature Genetics, PNAS, Plant Cell, Plant Journal, Plant Physiology, PLoS Genetics, PLoS Pathogens, and Genetics. He has mentored more than 25 graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, 6of whom are professors in academia in the United States, Europe, and China. He chaired the inaugural and cochaired the second and third Genetics of Maize-Microbe Interactions Workshops in 2011, 2013, and 2016 and was a member of the Maize Genetics Steering Committee. He founded and coordinates a nationwide seminar series connecting more than 100 scientists working in the area of maize-microbiome relations. He has been a participant on grants from NSF, USDA, DOE, and DARPA totaling more than $27 million, of which more than $5 million was directed to his program. His outreach work with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has reached thousands across NC. He has served as a senior editor on six prominent plant pathology and plant science journals; three APS journals: Phytopathology (2012-2015), PhytoFrontiers (2020-present), Molecular Plant–Microbe Interactions (2019-2022); two British Society of Plant Pathology journals: Plant Pathology (2014-2022) and Molecular Plant Pathology (2020-present), and for The Plant Journal published by the Society for Experimental Biology (2022-present).
Balint-Kurti’s sustained research contributions to the field of maize disease resistance and defense response have provided a unique framework for the understanding and further investigation of this phenomenon in plants. His contributions to the maize disease genetics and wider scientific communities have contributed to the better understanding of disease response in one of our most important crops.